Miraculous Nuns of the 7th and 21st Centuries

The New York Times is reporting from towns across the country to explore “how America defines itself one place at a time.” On September 9, the dispatch came from an abbey in Gower, Missouri.

The founder of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, Sister Wilhelmina—a real firecracker, from the descriptions—died in 2019. She was buried “in a simple wood coffin” on the grounds of the abbey, and this spring the sisters decided to exhume her body and lay her to rest in a place of honor inside the church.

The sisters of course expected to find a typically decayed corpse, but Sister Wilhelmina was found to be almost perfectly preserved:

When they opened the coffin … 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.”

When someone’s body does not decompose after death, the Catholic Church calls them “incorruptable.” The Times noted that “there have been more than 100 examples worldwide, most of them in Europe.”

Though its status as part of Europe seems to depend on the weather, England has at least one incorruptible that I know of: Saint Aethelthryth. If you want to pronounce that sort of correctly when you toss this story into casual conversation, go with something like A-thel-thrith, emphasis on the first A, which sounds like the vowel in “cat.” It’s also sometimes spelled Etheldreda. Or you can call her Saint Audrey, since that’s how the name evolved over the centuries.

How many centuries? Fourteen. Aethelthryth was the abbess at Ely in the 600s. She was married—twice, actually—but she maintained her virginity throughout both. According to medieval authors such as Bede and Aelfric, eventually she became a nun and then abbess. She developed some kind of pus-filled growth on her neck, which she saw as comeuppance for her vanity and love of necklaces. A doctor was called to lance it, but to no avail. She died three days later.
Saint Aethelthryth from the Benediction of Aethelwold, British Library MS Additional 49598 f 90v

Here’s where things start to overlap with Sister Wilhelmina. According to Aelfric’s tenth-century account:

[She] was buried as she herself commanded, among her sisters, in a wooden coffin.

Aethelthryth’s (biological) sister Sexburh becomes abbess of Ely. After sixteen years, she decides to exhume Aethelthryth’s body to lay it to rest in a place of honor inside the church—much like the nuns of Our Lady of Ephesus did four years after Sister Wilhelmina’s death.

Sexburh and the nuns sing over the wooden casket as they open it and find that

[Aethelthryth] lay in the coffin as if she lay asleep, all limbs whole, and the doctor who had lanced her tumor was there, and he examined her thoroughly. The wound the physician had made was healed; likewise, the clothes that were wrapped around her were as whole as if they were all new.

So both were in simple wood coffins, and both wore “immaculate” clothing or cloths even in their graves.

Like the modern nuns, Sexburh rejoices at this miracle and has Aethelthryth carried into the church where she was laid to rest “in great honor, a wonder for the people.” The word wundrunge is used here, and you can see where our modern word wonder is related. But it can also mean spectacle, and it carries more of a sense of awe than puzzlement.

Aelfric goes on:

It was evident that she was an undefiled virgin, that her body could not rot in the ground, and God’s might is truly revealed through it, that he could raise the decayed bones, so that her body was kept whole in the grave even to this day; glory be to him.

Aethelthryth, according to this account, is about as incorruptible as they come.

Like Aethelthryth, Sister Wilhelmina’s body has been placed in honor and on display in the church for pilgrims to visit. Also like Aethelthryth, visitors come to pray and ask God to grant them favors through Sister Wilhelmina. Both are thought to be particularly helpful with health issues.

This is the rare occasion when not only does something from Old English have a direct complement in the modern day, but I get to use my ability to read and translate Old English. There was zero chance I was going to pass up the chance to use this very niche skill.