As Pilgrims Flock to See Sister Wilhelmina, Abbey Becomes ‘Spiritual Haven’ for All
The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles continue to live their charism of prayer, work and hospitality.
With the discovery of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s well-preserved body at the Abbey of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in Gower, Missouri, the order perhaps best known for its beautiful albums of sacred chant has once again come into the public eye.
As thousands of pilgrims have flocked to their home in the weeks following the revelation of the exhumation of Sister Wilhelmina, the Benedictine nuns released a statement on their website, part of which read, “Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora et labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it. Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here.”
Part of the order’s ability to maintain peace and contemplation amid such exterior changes is certainly due to their devotion to Christ and their rule of life. Their website describes their special devotion to Mary under the title of Queen of the Apostles and their dedication to praying for priests: “Totally consecrated to the Queen of Apostles, we take Our Lady’s hidden life at Ephesus as an inspiration for our own. We seek to be what she was for the early Church: a loving and prayerful support to the apostles, the first priests, and daily offer prayer and sacrifice for the sake of her spiritual sons.”
‘A Hidden Source of Spiritual Strength Through Prayer’
The Register spoke with Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell, who shared about Sister Wilhelmina’s special love for priests and how it informed the charism of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.
“Mother Teresa of Calcutta asked Sister Wilhelmina to be among her ‘Veronicas,’ a group of special intercessors for priests, after visiting Sister Wilhelmina's motherhouse in the early 1990s,” Mother Abbess Cecilia recalled. “Sister Wilhelmina wedded her love of tradition with her love of the priesthood in 1995, setting out for Elmhurst, Pennsylvania, where the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had just established its American headquarters. She faithfully helped at the seminary until its move to Nebraska, and as the community [of Benedictine sisters at Gower] settled into a more monastic way of life, she passed on this great love for priests. She drew inspiration from a stained-glass window of Pentecost at the chapel in Elmhurst, around which were the words Perseverantes Unaminite in Oratione (‘Persevering in One Heart in Prayer’), writing that she saw in this the ideal of her new community, praying and sacrificing for priests.”
“When we were to be elevated as an abbey, a motto had to be chosen,” Mother Abbess Cecilia continued. “Sister Wilhelmina was ill on the day we were discussing what it would be. We had no idea that we were choosing the self-same phrase that she had chosen 23 years earlier, and only found out about her choice of a motto in her writings after her death. So it was literally the movement of the Holy Spirit. She wanted us to be what Our Lady was for the apostles, a hidden source of spiritual strength through prayer.”
The beauty of the nun’s life is its simplicity. In speaking of their charism on their website, the Benedictines note, “We cannot preach the Gospel to the nations nor bring the Lord to our tabernacles, but we can be ‘Love in the heart of the Church’ with firm adherence to her teaching, loyalty to the Holy Father, and deep-seated love of the traditional liturgy.”
Like St. Thérèse, who in her autobiography said, “In the heart of the Church, I will be love,” the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles are missionaries without ever leaving their convent. Their vows of obedience, stability (staying in the same monastery throughout their lives), and conversion of life (which includes poverty and chastity, but also “conversatio, literally a continual turning to the Lord”) are the soil in which their key identity as daughters and brides of Christ flourishes.
Mother Abbess Cecilia described the daily life of the order in this way:
“In the Benedictine life, we speak of ‘three eights’: eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep. It does not break up quite so tidily, but that is the ideal. We have eight ‘hours,’ that is, eight times in which the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours) is chanted, a sung high Mass every day, and two periods of lectio divina (spiritual reading and mental prayer). We work in silence for the remainder of the day on vestments [for priests] and upkeep of the farm, house and garden, as well as correspondence. … We have one hour of recreation, which is when we are allowed to speak, usually while we are keeping our hands busy. We are always ready to go to bed at the end of the day, but take turns in the night in the church in prayer for priests.”
Praying for Priests, Making Vestments and Sacred Singing
As Mother Abbess Cecilia emphasized, “The prayer for priests is what animates our day.” This prayer is intertwined through both the ora part of their lives — like keeping nightly vigil for priests — and the labora:
“We continue a tradition Sister Wilhelmina faithfully practiced, that of placing an ordination card at the foot of the crucifix in our community room each day, asking Our Lady to take our prayers especially for that priest. We seem to feel the effects of this and instinctively know who needs prayers. For example, we will sometimes have days where it seems everything is going wrong. Sisters check the crucifix, and, sure enough, there will be a bishop’s card that day, and we will see it as a sign that extra prayers and sacrifices are needed. We also devote much of our work to the making of vestments, a very privileged work.”
The nuns’ devotion to prayer also finds expression in their beautiful sung chant. An auditory sign of their solidarity as a community, their singing accompanies the Latin high Masses that take place daily in their chapel. This is a gift they’ve shared with the world through the recording of albums, topping the Billboard charts.
Mother Abbess Cecilia shared that the albums are the fruit of the abbey’s daily life: “Since we give so many hours to chanting each day, singing as a group comes naturally to us. Someone suggested that we record back in 2008, in order to share our life of prayer with the world without any intrusion. We recorded our first that year and have made a total of 14 since then! We are actually hoping to record another album before Christmas.”
Sister Wilhelmina’s Joyful Witness
It is clear that Sister Wilhelmina’s spirit continues to strongly guide this community, as the order continues to grow and draw young women. Mother Abbess Cecilia noted:
“Sister Wilhelmina really saw us as a specifically Marian community and an ecclesial one. She always encouraged us to be very faithful to the daily recitation of the Rosary, to renew our Marian consecration each month, and to pray for the Church, especially its leaders.”
She also remembered her own personal connection to their foundress:
“I myself was so deeply stuck by Sister Wilhelmina when I met her 20 years ago. She was assisting at the first vows of a sister and Investiture of Novices at the cathedral in Scranton. Everything bespoke a deep peace and holiness about her, that she was so joyful to serve the Lord after so many years. That was definitely a draw for me in my own vocation, along with her unshakeable conviction to preserve and pass on the faith she loved so dearly. She was in love with Our Lord, and never fell out of love, teaching us all to be faithful spouses.”
This love finds expression in Sister Wilhelmina’s order in its orientation toward Mary, who always points to her Son:
“Sister Wilhelmina saw Our Lady’s mission as Queen of Apostles, beginning at the foot of the cross, when Our Lord said, ‘Behold thy son,’ to his mother, Mary,” Mother Abbess Cecilia explained. “She really felt we all needed to enter into that motherhood and extend the prayer of Our Lady throughout the Church. The crowning glory was really at Pentecost, when her prayer sent forth the apostles into the whole world. Sister Wilhelmina was constantly praying for a new Pentecost and the renewal of the priesthood.”
Peace Through It All
Such holy fervor translates itself into the nuns’ way of life. The past couple of years have been peppered with the unexpected. From 2019-2021, there were some drive-by shootings at the abbey in Gower, including one in which a bullet went through Mother Abbess Cecilia’s bedroom window. These shootings prompted the building of the abbey walls in 2021. Of this incident, Mother Abbess Cecilia said, “I have to say, I rolled over and went back to sleep after I heard the bullet enter my room. When you have the Benedictine lifestyle ordering your life, your soul becomes ordered inside. That is why Pax is a phrase heading Benedictine correspondence and even our entryway: PAX INTRANTIBUS, ‘Peace to all entering.’”
With the discovery of Sister Wilhelmina’s well-preserved body and the unexpected attention this has drawn — pilgrims may now pray before her body encased under glass in the abbey’s church — the sisters continue to be ordered by their way of life.
As Mother Abbess Cecilia put it, “Gunshots or incorruptibles, we take everything in stride as part of God’s will for us in our journey toward heaven.”
God’s Will: The Life and Works of Sister Mary Wilhelmina; available at EWTNRC.com or (800) 854-6316.