Slain Nuns Leave Void in MS Community 08/26 06:29
DURANT, Miss. (AP) -- In the rural Mississippi community they served, two
nuns found slain in their home "would do anything for anybody," friends said.
The women, both 68 and nurse practitioners, were found dead Thursday morning
when they didn't report to work at the nearby clinic where they provided flu
shots, insulin and other medical care for children and adults who couldn't
They were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill.
Dr. Elias Abboud, who worked with the sisters for years and helped build the
Lexington Medical Clinic, said he's not sure what will happen to the facility
in light of their deaths.
"I think the community is going to be different after this. You need
somebody with that passion to love the people and work in the underserved
area," Abboud said.
"For somebody to come and do this horrible act, we are all shocked," he
Authorities did not release a cause of death, but the Rev. Greg Plata said
police told him the nuns were stabbed. Their bodies were taken to a state crime
lab for autopsies.
"They were two of the sweetest, most gentle women you can imagine. Their
vocation was helping the poor," said Plata, who oversees a 35-member Catholic
church the sisters attended.
Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said there
were signs of a break-in at the home in Durant and the nuns' car was taken.
The abandoned Toyota Corolla was found undamaged late Thursday barely a mile
from the home and was being towed to the state crime lab near Jackson,
Mississippi's capital city, according to Mississippi Department of Public
Safety spokesman Warren Strain. Durant is about 64 miles north of Jackson.
Abboud said the clinic provided about 25 percent of all the medical care in
the county, which has a population of about 18,000, according to U.S. Census
Bureau estimates for July 2015.
The two nuns provided almost all the care at the clinic and cultivated
relationships with drug company representatives, who often left extra free
samples, according to clinic manager Lisa Dew.
"I think their absence is going to be felt for a long, long time. Holmes
County, it's one of the poorest in the state," Dew said. "There's a lot of
people here who depended on them for their care and their medicines. It's going
to be rough."
Authorities didn't release a motive and it wasn't clear if the nuns'
religious work had anything to do with the slayings.
Police Chief John Haynes said officers were canvassing the area and trying
to look at video from surveillance cameras in town to see if they spot anything
The Catholic community in Mississippi is relatively small. Of nearly 3
million people, the diocese said there are about 108,000 Catholics.
Held had been a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee for
49 years "and lived her ministry caring for and healing the poor," a statement
from the order said.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said whoever killed Held "robbed not
only the School Sisters of St. Francis, but also the entire Church of a woman
whose life was spent in service."
Merrill had worked in Mississippi for more than 30 years, according to the
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky. She was from Massachusetts and
joined the order in 1979.
Two years later, she moved to the South and found her calling in the
Mississippi Delta community, according to a 2010 article in The Journey, a
publication by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
During an early part of her career, she helped bring a tuberculosis outbreak
under control in the region, Dew said.
Merrill saw children and adults, and helped in other ways.
"We do more social work than medicine sometimes," Merrill told The Journey.
"Sometimes patients are looking for a counselor."
After Hurricane Katrina left much of the town without power for weeks in
2005, the sisters allowed people to come to their house to cook because they
had a gas stove, neighbor Patricia Wyatt-Weatherly said.
They were skilled in stretching resources, and routinely produced amazing
dishes out of what seemed like a very small garden at their home, said Sam
Sample, lay leader of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, where the
sisters were members. The small congregation called off its weekly Bible study
and meal Thursday night.
"They would do anything for anybody. Folks in Holmes County don't realize
the impact it will have without them being here," Sample said.