The NYT headline below is in line with the paper’s recurrent penchant for touting religion while at least admitting that some people doubt God’s existence. In general, though, if you read the headline, your first thought—if you’re not a diehard skeptic—is “yes, it’s a miracle!” (See the word counts at bottom.)
The miracle is a familiar one: a religious person is dug up after some time and their bodies are found to have been incorrupted—that is, they didn’t rot, shrivel, degenerate, or decay. Catholics often consider this a miracle, and the Vatican has a whole policy of inspection for incorruptibility, which can be seen as a miracle helping qualify the Incorrupted Person as a saint.
A famous example of this is Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), or Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. This case, once touted as showing miraculous incorruptibility, now shows the weakness of judging someone as “not decayed.” Although Soubirous was designated a saint based on other miracles, when exhumed 30 years after death, her body was declared to be in perfect condition. Catholicpiligrims.com reports on three exhumations of Bernadette, the last in 1925. The inspecting doctor said this:
“What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.”
Remarkable! Except if you look even at Wikipedia, you see that not only are the visible parts of Bernadette’s body (on view in the town of Nevers) covered with wax, but there’s also this note with the photo below (my emphasis):
The body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes with wax face and hand coverings, declared to appear incorrupt by a committee in 1909 (subsequent exhumations indicated corruption). (January 7, 1844 – April 16, 1879).
As part of the canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times, in 1909, 1919, and finally in 1925, when she was moved to the crystal casket. Her body was pronounced by the church as officially “incorrupt,” but it seems the qualifications for that term may have been somewhat lax. In the words of the attending doctor in 1919: “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts… The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.”
After a few ribs were removed to be sent to Rome as relics, it was decided that the “blackish color” of her face might be off-putting to pilgrims, and so a “light wax mask” was in order. Her new face and hands were designed by Pierre Imans, a designer of fashion mannequins in Paris.
Yep, she was not incorruptible. She was rotting away.
Now it’s possible that Bernadette rotted somewhat more slowly than a normal body (perhaps due to special physical features of the body, casket, or soil; see below), but I can’t rule out with absolute certainty that God did it. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, science can’t be 100% certain about anything). But if God did it, why didn’t he just preserve her in perpetuity, with no need for wax or remaking of faces and hands? God can do that, you know, for He can do anything! Here we have another vexing question for Sophisticated Theologians™: why does God act so erratically with respect to the bodies of saints?
But on to the NYT, which reports on another “incorruptible” nun, whose face also has been be covered with a wax mask. There’s a racial dimension to this one, too, for as far as I know, this is the first incorruptible nun who was black. The NYT plays that up, of course, but I find the science of more interest.
Click on the screenshot below, and I also found the piece archived here.
In life, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was known to her fellow nuns for her devotional poetry, her sense of humor and her fierce piety. “I’m Sister Wil-hel-mina,” she was known to say. “I’ve a hell of a will and I mean it!” A biography published by her order after her death at age 95 in 2019 described her as the little nun “who persevered in faith.”
In death, Sister Wilhelmina has become something much larger to some: a potential saint, a pilgrimage attraction, a miracle.
The transformation started this spring at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, run by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a small but growing conservative order whose headquarters are nestled in the rolling hills north of Kansas City. Four years after burying Sister Wilhelmina, the order’s founder, in a simple wood coffin in a corner of the property, the sisters decided to move her body into a customary place of honor inside their church.
My emphasis below in what seems to be a bit of fudging:
When they opened the coffin, expecting to find bones that could be easily cleaned and placed in a new box, they instead found what looked and even felt remarkably like Sister Wilhelmina herself. Her face was recognizable, even after years in a damp coffin, and the sisters said that her beloved habit was “immaculate.”
For the Benedictines of Mary, this immediately signaled that Sister Wilhelmina may be an “incorruptible,” a term the Catholic Church uses to describe people whose bodies — or parts of their bodies — did not decompose after death. Believers in the phenomenon say there have been more than 100 examples worldwide, mostly in Europe.
Michael O’Neill, who hosts a national radio show called “The Miracle Hunter” on the Catholic station EWTN, said that the case of Sister Wilhelmina, who was Black, was especially distinctive. “There’s never been an African American incorruptible; in fact there’s never been an American of any sort who’s an incorruptible,” he said. “So this is big news.”
Incorrupted, but after a paltry four years. But was she really that well preserved?
Here’s a photo of the body *(uncredited) from The Pillar, a Catholic publication:
Note that only her face and hands are visible (well, it would be salacious to show other parts), but The Pillar adds this:
In the case of Sister Wilhelmina, it is not clear how much of her body may be incorrupt. Photos circulating online seem to show a life-like face that has resisted decomposition, while skin on the nun’s hands appears leathery and dehydrated, but not rotting.
. . .The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints has norms on the examination process, which emphasize the respect due to the human body, he said. But there are no specific norms governing an investigation into whether a body is incorrupt.
In the recent Missouri case, Sister Wilhelmina’s canonization cause has not been opened, making the veneration of her mortal remains — and the prospect of an investigation — somewhat unusual.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a May 22 statement, which noted the need “to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
But when asked by The Pillar about what the investigation will entail — and who is responsible for it — a spokesperson for the diocese was not able to give a clear sense of the next steps.
Angelus, another Catholic publication, says this:
Cleaned and protected with wax, Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are now on display for veneration at the monastery. Following a May 29 rosary procession, the body will be encased in glass at the altar shrine, the religious community stated, adding that once devotion to Sister Wilhelmina has become “well established,” her cause for canonization “may be introduced.”
Another Catholic site shows her face (below), saying it’s covered with a “light transparent face mask”. If that’s true (and why any wax?), it is a remarkable case of preservation:
The NYT doesn’t say anything about a wax coating, or Sister Wilhelmina’s rotting hands. But they do manage to throw in one doubter toward the end, even though they dismiss science in the very next sentence. Bolding below is mine:
Inside the abbey walls, few openly question what they see before their eyes. To experts in forensic science, there are other potential explanations.
“It’s impossible to make many conclusions at all,” said Marcella Sorg, a forensic anthropologist and research professor at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. One of several explanations is the phenomenon of dry mummification, which can take place naturally if the body’s soft tissues stay dry enough. Factors include the person’s body fat, their diet in the days before death and the dryness of the wood used for the coffin.
For others, science is hardly the point.
Madeline Whitt, a clerk at the Hy-Klas grocery store in Gower, shrugged when asked if Sister Wilhelmina’s preservation was a miracle. “Even if it’s not,” she said, “if it brings more people to come and question things, then it is.”
Ms. Whitt, 17, has visited the abbey three times to see Sister Wilhelmina.
She attends a nondenominational Protestant church and said she had not ever seen a nun before her visits to the abbey. It was a “culture shock,” she said. But in a quiet, small town, it was also something to do.
In a 1,672-word piece. then, the NYT devotes 96 words, or 5.7%, to just one alternative naturalistic explanation. And there are others: after all, parts of Sister Wilhelmina are starting to degenerate, and for some unexplained reason they put wax on her body. If they are really looking for a miracle, leave off the wax!
And THEN they have the temerity to say that “science is hardly the point.” In fact, it is the entire point. Either there’s a naturalistic explanation for the incorruptibility of this nun’s body, or there’s not, and it’s supernatural. (I’m betting on the former.) And that distinction is precisely what Madelin Whitt meant when suggesting that people should see the body and “question things.”
Better yet, read up on forensic anthropology. An Internet search for naturalistic explanations yields very little, even in the Wikipedia article. I’m sure there are explanations out there, though, and I suggest that readers look for them. In the meantime, although the NYT has mercifully ditched its weekly lucubrations on Jesus from Pastor Tish Harrison Warren, it continues to be very soft on religion. After all, the paper wouldn’t want to anger its “believing-in-belief” readers by acting like that nasty old skepic James Randi. Such doubt wins you no plaudits in religious America.
And I still want to know why God can’t make a saint’s body incorruptible without the use of wax.