Shrine Altar for Sr. Mary Wilhelmina at the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus (Gower, Missouri)

A recumbent style altar of wood has been made to hold the mortal remains of Sr. Mary Wilhelmina, the foundress of the Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles. She founded this vibrant order of cloistered nuns in 1995 and passed away in 2019. Today, the sisters who are located at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, are one of the fastest growing female religious orders in North America. The sisters already have a second foundation in Ava, Missouri, known as the Monastery of St. Joseph. The new altar is dedicated to St. Joseph, whose image graces it in a bas-relief wood carving.  

The sisters have circulated this statement to clarify recent events surrounding the exhumation of the body and its public display while also asking that purported miracles and healings be reported here.  

"By now, most of you have heard of the events that have transpired at the Abbey, especially surrounding the exhumation of our Sister Wilhelmina. We simply want to reach out to you to clarify a few points.

Our Abbey had been planning the addition of a St. Joseph Shrine within the oratory for quite some time, including the reinterment of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina. Last month, in preparation for the construction of the shrine, we exhumed her, having been told to expect bones in the highly moist clay of Missouri, as she was buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming whatsoever four years ago.

The intent was devotional, and to carry this out in the privacy of our cloistered life. Nevertheless, the discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans. We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire. However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us."

As the sisters mentioned in the above quote, the altar was created specifically to hold the mortal remains of Sr. Mary Wilhelmina, who was recently exhumed from her original burial spot in the convent garden. The stated purpose of this altar was from he beginning to hold her mortal remains, albeit without a glass window. As the foundress, it is a perfectly normal custom to have the founding member of a religious community reinterred in the main convent chapel. 

Indeed, it is noteworthy that the remains were found to be incorrupt, generally a sign of sanctity. In the Christian tradition, saints and blesseds who are found to be incorrupt give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the incorruptible life that is to come for those who love Christ and persevere to the end. All of this is being documented for the time when an official investigation commences. 

Below are two images of the altar, with its quickly adapted glass side, added to accommodate an incorruptible, revealing the inner contents. A detachable side cover was therefore crafted for the altar, designed to cover the glass enclosure when needed. This type of altar, although a rare sight in North America, is a long-standing custom seen in many Catholic countries. 

The altar was made by Andrew Colf and Mark Gabryel of the Catholic Customs Company, a new start-up that makes custom altars for home oratories. The company has images on their website of the project, seen here. Many Catholics flocked to witness the internment on Monday, May 29th. An image taken from a video of the sisters processing to the new altar with the body of their beloved foundress can be seen below. 

When the original coffin made of wood was exhumed in the graveyard, it was revealed that it had a wide crack on the top, the result of the weight of the dirt that was piled on it four years before at the time of burial. As the cover was removed, Mother Abbess cried, "I see a foot!" as she touched the first visible sign of incorruptibility during the exhumation. 

The sisters observed the state of Sr. Wilhelmina's intact body, noting how perfectly intact her habit was, even though the coffin lining had deteriorated due to moisture and the elements. With that, the sisters processed from the gravesite to the Abbey, singing a variety of Sr. Wilhelmina's favorite hymns. 

When Sr. Wilhelmina's body was exhumed, it had up to an inch of mold on the body, which was cleaned by the sisters with extreme care. Once the cleaning was completed, the sisters prayed Compline around the body. The first official visitor to see the body was Bishop Athanasius Schneider who was in town visiting the sisters. That same day Bishop Finn also came to see the body and verify its condition. 

As crowds descended upon the convent, reports of favors and miracles were heard everywhere. Due to the excessive crowds, Sr. Wilhelmina's body was moved first from the convent parlor to the Abbey church and later to the church basement. Upwards of 15,000 pilgrims came to visit on Memorial Day weekend alone and some waited as long as three hours. The nuns' alfalfa field was transformed into a parking lot while a neighboring family across the street offered additional parking in their field.  Volunteers directed traffic and handed out fruit and bottled water, some coming from nearby St. Joseph's parish in Easton and Benedictine College. 

Before Sister was reinterred, the nuns led a rosary procession to her original grave, ending at the new resting place in the Abbey church. Suddenly, the Abbey has become a pilgrimage destination for thousands of souls, journeying from near and far to see the incorrupt body of the beloved foundress, Sr. Wilhelmina, a pioneer in the postconciliar Traditional Latin Mass movement.   

Mother Abbess wrote the following inspiring words in the Spring/Summer newsletter At Ephesus:

"Many wonder, what is the Lord trying to say to us in giving us this extremely rare and beautiful sign? I dare say, He is telling us that He loves us, He is with us, and He wants us to be with Him in heaven: body and soul! This little black Sister shows us visibly, that death is not the end. She has resisted the effects of the Fall of our first parents in her very body, and she manifests to all the world the beauty of being a Bride of Christ, especially at a time when bridehood has been severely undermined, within both religious life and family life. She points to her Bridegroom as the Resurrection and the Life, Who will raise us up on the Last Day, that those who are faithful may not fear even death. Please thank the good God with us, for having given such a sign in our midst. He is real, and heaven is real. This should give us all great hope in His eternal promises!"


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