Details emerge about 2 nuns slain in Mississippi

Left to Right: Paula Merrill and Margaret Held (Courtesy: Sisters of Charity of Nazareth)

DURANT, Miss. — Investigators in rural Mississippi are searching for answers after the slaying of two nuns who friends and community members say would “do anything for anybody.”

The women were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill. Both 68 and nurse practitioners, were found dead Thursday morning in their home 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 afford it.

Authorities did not release a cause of death, but the Rev. Greg Plata said police told him the nuns were stabbed. Police confirmed to CBS affiliate WJTV the women had stab wounds.  Their bodies were taken to a state crime lab for autopsies.

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 along a secluded street 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. Strain told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger investigators aren’t sure when the vehicle was abandoned.

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 unusual.

Authorities didn’t release a motive and it wasn’t clear if the nuns’ religious work had anything to do with the slayings.

Durant is about 64 miles north of Jackson. The Catholic community is relatively small. Of nearly 3 million people, the diocese said there are about 108,000 Catholics.

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 added.

“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.

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.”

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.”

A video produced by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth that accompanied the article profiled the two women and their medical work in the poor community where many had no health insurance and illnesses like diabetes are common.

“Margaret and I have worked together for many years,” Merrill says in the video. “We just see patients and do what needs to be done.”

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.

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