Slain nuns leave void in Mississippi community they served

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DURANT, MISS. >> 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 afford it.

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 added.

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 unusual.

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.

Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and Elizabeth Campbell in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.


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