Funeral of a Foundress: Sr. Wilhelmina and the Liturgy of the Dead

The month of November is a time to contemplate the reality of death and remember the souls of our deceased brothers and sisters. This is a brief account of the funeral of Sister Wilhelmina of the Holy Rosary, the foundress of an extraordinary community of Benedictine nuns.

On the feast of the Ascension this year, I learned that Sister Wilhelmina had died the previous evening. I immediately made plans to travel to the funeral which was to be held at the Abbey of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, the following day.

When I arrived at the abbey, things were as peaceful as ever. A small note on the church door invited visitors to pay their respects in the adjoining chapter house. Passing through the church to the chapter house, I soon came upon a beautiful vigil taking place around the body of Sister Wilhelmina. I don’t call it a wake because it was so drastically different from the usual funeral home experience of that name.

Sister Wilhelmina rested in her small coffin of unfinished wood made for her by one of the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. She was not embalmed, and she looked natural, as if she were only sleeping. Beeswax candles and many flowers surrounded the coffin. Two young sisters seated on either side of the chapter house faithfully and soothingly chanted the Office of the Dead. At this hour of the morning, sunlight streamed through the high windows and gave the chapter house a heavenly glow.

I heard later that since the moment of Sister Wilhelmina’s death, there had not ceased to be two sisters keeping vigil at the coffin and chanting the Office of the Dead. This vigil, in which nuns reverently kept watch at the coffin of their deceased sister, was truly worthy of the weight of the mystery of death!

Monasticism has much to teach the world. Perhaps this admirable spirit of solemnity and prayer could find its way to funeral homes and the viewings of the deceased laity.

wilhelmina funeral

Closing the coffin in the chapter house.

After praying a while near the body, I went back to the abbey church to await the funeral with the rest of the laity. We could hear the sisters, now the entire community of 36 nuns, in the chapter house chanting the psalms for the meeting of the body. I heard the sounds of a power drill, and I knew they were fastening the lid to the coffin. Soon the funeral procession entered the church, and they placed the coffin between each of the choirs, which extend the length of the nave. The abbess and prioress tenderly situated their deceased sister for her requiem.

The Reverend Arnaud Devillers, FSSP offered the Solemn Mass for the Dead assisted by the Reverend Lawrence Carney and the Reverend Matthew Bartulica. The nuns deftly chanted the Mass parts and the propers. When they chanted this stanza of the Dies Irae, it struck me that the traditional funeral rite takes no chances:

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus
Cum vix justus sit securus?


What shall I frail man be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
When the just are mercy needing? [1]

It calls down the mercy of God upon the deceased, whether the deceased happens to be a known sinner or a holy nun who faithfully lived her vows for 75 years. This liturgy teaches us that we can’t presume that even Sister Wilhelmina, as good and holy as she most truly was, is already up in Heaven, having a good time. Then we look at our own lives and soberly ask, “What shall I frail man be pleading?”

Chanting the Introit.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Devillers prayed the prayer of Absolution at the coffin. The text of this prayer is striking, and it echoes in prose what the Dies Irae tells us in poetry. Hearing this prayer in the context of the funeral of such a holy and even heroic nun, I was once again struck by the genius of the traditional funeral liturgy, which warns us in such a stirring way that none of us can presume that he has his “ticket to heaven.” In fact, the only merit the prayer puts forward for the soul of the deceased, the only thing it lists on the soul’s résumé, so to speak, is baptism, as it concludes with the words:

[S]uccor him by Thy gracious favor, that he may escape Thine avenging justice who, in his lifetime, was signed with the seal of the holy Trinity. [2]

With breathtaking clarity, the prayer shows us that we hope for the salvation of the deceased first and foremost because of the astounding generosity of the Triune God, Who deigns to adopt us in Baptism and places His seal upon us.

After the prayers of absolution, the sisters chanted In Paradisum while carrying the coffin to the grave, which they had dug with garden spades the previous day. Once the prayers at the grave were complete, six laymen gently lowered the coffin into its resting place using ropes. The absence of the ugly machinery so often present at graves was truly consoling. Starting with the abbess, each nun took a turn with a spade, casting a little dirt back into the deep grave. They were sobbing, and their grief, like everything else that day, was natural and beautiful. Soon the grave was covered by a mound of dirt and topped with flowers.

Prayers at the grave.

wilhelmina grave

Filling the grave.

The Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of Ephesus are true Benedictines in the liturgy and in hospitality. They served a bountiful funeral luncheon to the lay faithful, and there they displayed many lovely pictures of Sister Wilhelmina through the years. To learn more of Sister Wilhelmina’s story, read this inspiring tribute provided by her sisters at the Abbey of Ephesus.

Sister Wilhelmina in 2019.

Special thanks to the Reverend Mother Cecilia Snell for permission to publish this account and for allowing use of the above photographs.

If you are interested in learning more about the traditional funeral liturgy, I recommend this excellent post by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.

Photo credit: Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles.

[1] Baronius, The Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual, page 1,570.

[2] Ibid., 1697–1698.

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