“God’s Will: The Life and Works of Sr. Mary Wilhelmina”
By the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
234 pages, $20
“Brides of Christ”
By the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, with James Toner
72 pages, $20
It seems like the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, the old-school Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, have always been particularly prominent in the headlines. For several years, their multiple recordings of seasonal and liturgical hymns have brought them notice and acclaim (and not a few visits to the top-spots of the classical music sales charts). Recently the community was in the news once more when the sisters exhumed what they believed would be the bones of their foundress, Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster, only to discover her apparently incorrupt remains and utterly pristine, though moss-covered, religious habit showing through the cracks of her wooden coffin.
While they’re by no means media pros, the nuns appear to handle press attention with unusual grace, and that is likely to continue as people take notice of a pair of books they have recently published, both of which can appeal to readers of all ages and might prove endlessly engrossing for Catholic families.
The first, entitled “God’s Will: The Life and Works of Sr. Mary Wilhelmina” chronicles the singularly fascinating life of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster (born Mary Elizabeth), who discerned her vocation in childhood and spent the greatest part of her life as a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence — the African American community established by Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, declared “venerable” by Pope Francis in June 2023 — before founding the Benedictines of Mary in an effort to reclaim the habit and the Latin liturgical prayer the Oblate Sisters had discarded after the Second Vatican Council, and devote herself to contemplative prayer.
The book is unlike anything being offered in modern publishing. Weighing over a pound, “God’s Will” is both heavy in the hand and in content, though so highly illustrated it almost reads like a graphic novel. Each one of its 234 pages is bright with historical photographs and drawings, classical paintings, icons and more modern photographs of the notable people and events directly or indirectly connected to the foundress’s life. There are even hymns, written out in full verse — perhaps not surprising for Benedictine monastics, for whom hymns and psalms are like lifeblood.
Starting with the Lancaster connection — yes, those Lancasters, whose Duchy belongs to the reigning sovereign of Great Britain and recently passed from Elizabeth II to Charles III — we learn that William Lancaster made a clandestine marriage with an enslaved woman and then vacated his Georgia plantation. Thus begins the examination of Sister Wilhelmina’s family tree, her immediate family and influences, including “The Fighting Markoes,” Jesuit priests and brothers, John and William, the latter of whom inspired Wilhelmina’s name in religion.
Finally we meet the child, Mary Elizabeth Lancaster, her story told in Wilhelmina’s own words, as taken from her memoirs. “I received my vocation on my First Communion day … when Our Lord asked me, ‘Will you be mine?'” She and her family suffered the indignity of racism that was all too common of the era — she was called a “little chocolate drop” by white neighbors — and the road to her vocation was swift but never easy.
“God’s Will” is a very full, very rich book and its design and layout offer sound value for the price. Catholic families in particular may find the book an inspiring testimony to the life of faith and an educational exposition on lived Catholic history in America, from the Civil War to today.
The second offering from the Gower community, entitled “Brides of Christ,” is equally unique, though meant for Catholic girls who may be intrigued by the notion of monasticism. At first glance, the book — written in verse and once again highly (and charmingly) illustrated — seems intended for younger minds, but there is so much wit and humor on tap that it is easy to envision a curious 16-year-old finding the book both amusing and helpfully enlightening.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.