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drawing a crowd

Thousands flock to Missouri to see body of nun who died in 2019

Over the last week, Catholics from across the United States have been heading to Gower, Missouri, to see the body of a nun who died in 2019.

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, said in a statement that in April, the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in order to build an addition of a St. Joseph shrine. They were expecting to find bones, but discovered the nun's body was nearly intact. Lancaster was buried in a simple wooden coffin and was not embalmed.

Once word spread about the state of Lancaster's remains, visitors began to descend on Gower, population 1,800, to see and touch the nun's body. Her fellow nuns "wanted to make her accessible to the public ... because in real life, she was always accessible to people," visitor Samuel Dawson told The Associated Press.

The body will be placed in a glass shrine, with visitors able to take dirt from her grave. In a statement, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said "incorruptibility has been verified in the past, but it is very rare. There is a well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood, but that has not been initiated in this case yet." The sainthood process can start five years after a death.

It is not unheard of for a body to be exhumed and show little decay, Rebecca George, an anthropology instructor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, told AP. Coffins and clothing help preserve bodies, she said, and it's common to see the "mummification" of remains that were not embalmed. "Typically, when we bury people, we don't exhume them. We don't get to look at them a couple years out," she added. "With 100 years, there might be nothing left. But when you've got just a few years out, this is not unexpected."