Sisters killed in Mississippi 'would do anything for their patients'

Left: Sr. Margaret Held, 68, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee; Right: Sr. Paula Merrill, 68, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky (CNS / School Sisters of St. Francis and Sisters of Charity of Nazareth)

Four weeks ago, Sr. Ruth Hoerig got a rare chance to spend some time with her good friend Sr. Margaret Held, who was back in Milwaukee for a visit.

Over lunch, the two School Sisters of St. Francis talked, laughed and reminisced. And Hoerig tried to talk Held into consenting to an interview about her vocation story for the order's magazine, Alive.

"She said no. She said, 'I'm nothing special.' She didn't want any attention," Hoerig said. "She was very humble. And obviously, she did not want to do that story."

Three weeks later, Held and Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill, both 68, were found stabbed to death in the home they shared in Durant, Mississippi, after what appeared to be a robbery attempt.

"It's just so contradictory, that a woman of that type would be killed," Hoerig said. "She cared nothing about herself. I'm still struck with disbelief on this whole thing."

The Mississippi Department of Public Safety announced late Aug. 26 that Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, had been charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with the deaths. He is being held without bail and could face the death penalty if convicted, though the sisters' orders have said they oppose that option.

"We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life," the orders said in a joint statement. "For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth. Let us hold everyone involved in prayer."

The bodies of the sisters were found by police Aug. 25 after co-workers asked law enforcement to check on the women when they failed to arrive for work at the clinic in Lexington, about 10 miles from Durant.

Both religious communities, in Wisconsin and Kentucky, have been in shock and grief over the loss of the sisters; Merrill had visited her congregation just a week before her death.

"Our mission statement calls us to risk our lives and resources as we work for justice in solidarity with oppressed people," the Sisters of Charity said in a statement. "These sisters did exactly that."

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Merrill moved to the South as a second-year novice with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Merrill's older sister, Rosemarie Merrill, still lives in their hometown in Massachusetts. Each winter, Rosemarie would travel to Durant to live in her sister's home and volunteer at the clinic, reported the Louisville diocesan newspaper, The Record:

She describes her baby sister as fun, stubborn and sarcastic. And the two often quibbled about which one was Martha and which one was Mary. When the Biblical sisters were the subject of the liturgy not long ago, Merrill said she called her sister and asked, 'Have we decided which of us is Martha and which is Mary' By the end of the call they decided they both have a little of Martha and a little of Mary inside them, Merrill said.

"Her faith was very strong. And she was a wonderful nurse," Rosemarie Merrill told The Record. "I feel so bad for the people of Holmes County because they've lost so much. The care they provided leaves a huge void. They would do anything for their patients."

Hoerig met Held in the 1960s, when Hoerig was teaching at an inner-city school and Held was a novice with the School Sisters of St. Francis. Despite a big age difference, the two hit it off.

"She was about 25 years younger than I, but I always looked up to her because she was always a model in terms of what our community stands for," Hoerig said. "Sometimes we get taken up with a fad, but that wasn't Margie. Margie worked out of the conviction of her own spirituality. She knew why she was here. She knew what her job was and she did it."

That was clear from the time Held took her final vows.

"That liturgy, I was just so struck by it," Hoerig said. "She was just a young sister at the time, but she had such a mature vision of what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to serve the poor."

Like most School Sisters of St. Francis, Held started out as a teacher, working at St. Joseph High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Soon, however, she moved into health care, first as a nurse in 1981 and then, in 1995, as a nurse practitioner.

"I think the reason she gave up teaching was she was a healer," Hoerig said. "She wanted to heal peoples' lives and peoples' spirits."

Few places in America need as much healing as Holmes County, Mississippi, where Held and Merrill ministered. One of the poorest counties in the nation, Holmes is in a region with one of the highest infant mortality rates in a state that ranks 50th in the nation for infant mortality.

"It's a very forsaken territory," Hoerig said. "Sometimes, one of our sisters would go visit her, and when they came back, they would get their students to send school supplies to the children there, because they had nothing."

But the people did have Held and Merrill, and they loved them.

Jonell Payton, a Durant alderwoman, lives across the street and a few doors down from Held and Merrill's house, The Associated Press reported. She said the nuns were "the most precious two people" and were known for helping provide medicine for those who couldn't afford it.

Both women worked at the clinic, where they gave flu shots, dispensed insulin and provided other medical care. The clinic provides about 25 percent of all the health care in the county, The Associated Press reported.

"One of those two sisters noticed a patient needed medication, but they didn't have it on hand in the clinic. So they called the pharmacy and said, 'Put it on my tab,'" Hoerig said. "Whatever they saw needed done, they did it."

More than 300 people packed into a memorial Mass in Lexington on Sunday, with at least half of them having to watch on a monitor outside the small church.

"Margie was one of the best we had," Hoerig said. "She was a woman of genuine sincerity, which came out of her beliefs that this is what we are here to do, to help out our fellow people. I know St. Francis would be proud of her."

Hoerig said she still cannot fathom how or why Held and Merrill were killed.

"I'm sitting here trying to make sense of all this, and the only thing I can think is, if she had died a natural death, no one would have known any of the work she did," Hoerig said. "It's like trying to convince her to tell her vocation story: She just didn't want to do it. She said, 'I'm not that special.' Little did she know how special she was."

Held's funeral Mass, which Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki will celebrate, is set for 11 a.m. Friday at the order's motherhouse. Merrill's funeral Mass will be celebrated 10:30 a.m. Friday in Nazareth.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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