DURANT, Mississippi — More than 300 people came to a small church Sunday, August 28th to say farewell to two nuns killed in their Mississippi home.
About 145 people filled St. Thomas Church in Lexington, where Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held led Bible study.
Others filled 160 chairs outside the church, where a monitor showed the Sunday night service, and still more stood alongside the seats to watch.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Jackson Diocese led the service called a vigil for the deceased.
The church’s priest, the Rev. Gregory Plata, spoke about how far-reaching their nuns’ work was, and how much they’ll be missed.
Both women were 68 years old. They worked in a clinic in Lexington, about 10 miles from their home in Durant.
The final hymn, described as Sister Margaret Held’s favorite, was “How Can I Keep from Singing?”
In the hours before the wake, a few members of their orders gathered at the house where they lived and died. Along with some members of Sister Merrill’s family, they prayed outside the house, then went inside.
Sister Susan Gatz, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, says Sister Held had baked bread for a prayer service that had been scheduled Thursday, the day her body and that of Sister Paula Merrill were found.
She said the loaf was split between The School Sisters of St. Francis, to which Held belonged, and Merrill’s order, the Sisters of Charity. She says it will be eaten as part of a celebration of the two women’s lives and work.
A mass will also be held Monday, August 29th in Jackson, Mississippi.
A man has been arrested in the stabbing deaths of Held and Merrill. The bodies of the nurse practitioners were found at their home in Mississippi Thursday after they failed to show up for work at a clinic in Lexington, where they served one of the state’s poorest counties.
Authorities believe the killer took the victims’ car, a blue Toyota Corolla, which was later found on an abandoned road less than a mile from their home. But nothing was taken from the house, according to a law enforcement official who has been briefed on the investigation.
Clinic workers called police when the pair didn’t arrive at the clinic, said Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson.
When authorities arrived at their home in Durant, 13 miles away from the clinic, they saw evidence of a break-in and found their bodies, she said.
Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, has been charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with the killings, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety said early Saturday.
“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” said Lt. Col. Jimmy Jordan, director of MBI.
After an investigation that included the sheriff’s department and the attorney general’s office, “this heinous crime has been resolved,” he said.
He did not provide additional information on the arrest.
Sanders appears to have been released from prison last December after serving nine months for a felony conviction for driving under the influence, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He also did prison time from the mid 1980s to early 1990s for armed robbery, records show.
Shortly after the women’s bodies were found, authorities said the motive for the killings remained unclear, adding that calling it a “robbery would be premature.”
The victims’ religious orders — the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and School Sisters of St. Francis — thanked investigators Saturday.
“There is still much we do not know about the suspect and the circumstances that led to this brutal and senseless crime,” the School Sisters of St. Francis said in a statement posted on Facebook.
‘They didn’t bother anybody’
Those who knew the two nuns described them as outgoing and compassionate.
“They were sweet, very loving … easy to get along with,” Patricia Wyatt Weatherly, who lived next door to the victims, told CNN affiliate WLBT-TV. “They didn’t bother anybody.”
The Rev. Greg Plata of St. Thomas Catholic Church, where they attended Mass, said they were “just good women, women of prayer.”
The sisters were loved by the doctors and residents in the area, and were the primary caregivers at the clinic, he said.
Plata’s parishioners mourned their passing Thursday night at the church.
“We basically cried and told our stories about them and talked about how important they were to us,” he said.
Merrill was a nurse practitioner in Mississippi for more than 30 years and had been at the Lexington Medical Clinic since 2010. The clinic tends to thousands of patients, many poor and uninsured.
“Many people have no health insurance because they can’t afford the premiums,” Merrill said in an interview posted on the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth website. “They make minimum wage.”
Held moved to Mississippi in 1983, and had lived in Durant for 13 years, officials said.