Slain Mississippi Sisters Inspired in Life and in Death
Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill accomplished great things in their medical clinic in poverty-stricken Lexington, Mississippi. The two sisters, who were murdered last week in the home they shared, provided medical care and compassion to the poor of Holmes County, notably the poorest county in Mississippi with an unemployment rate of 44 percent.
But it may be that even more than their lives of humble service, it will be after their untimely deaths that they will have the greatest impact for God. In this Year of Mercy, just one week before the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the two American sisters have taught us what it means to live the gospel message of mercy.
That's because the media, in reporting on the murders and now on the arrest of a suspect, have talked with those who knew the sisters best: neighbors, co-workers, members of their religious congregations. And this is quickly apparent: Christians really do love with the love of Christ.
Even secular media outlets are sharing a sort of Catechism Class, a picture for the world of just what it means to be a Christian. Each person who has been invited to share the sisters' stories in the local and national news has proffered a message of mercy, of forgiveness, of love for those in need. And readers, inspired by the sisters' lives of service, will hopefully realize that they, too, are called to serve God by serving their fellow man.
Oh, forgiveness in the face of violence and injustice is not easy. People struggle to forgive. CBS News quoted Fr. Greg Plata, pastor at St. Thomas Catholic Church where the sisters led a weekly Bible study. Father Plata acknowledged the struggle but said, “Forgiveness is at the heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'” Father Plata went on to say, “This is a poor area, and they dignified those who are poor with outreach and respect for them.”
And Fox News quoted Fr. Plata's praise for the sisters, who were members of his congregation: “Both were really down to earth. There was no phony spirituality. They were the real McCoy. They had a deep love of scripture.”
The sisters' religious communities, the Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee, both called on people to pray for the killer.
David Merrill, Sister Paula's nephew, spoke to CBS from his home in Stoneham, Massachusetts, explaining the sisters' life-long friendship and shared commitment to helping the poor. “This is a poor area,” Merrill said, “and they dignified those who are poor with outreach and respect for them.”
Assistant Police Chief James Lee of Durant, the small town where the sisters lived, said, “A double homicide in a city this small and the fact that these two ladies were nuns—they actually spent their entire lives serving this community right here—I'm sure our community is completely devastated and grieving.”
The Washington Post quoted Jamie Sample, a high school teacher and fellow parishioner. “They always made you feel like you were the most important person they had ever come in contact with.” She added, “They are probably two of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known in my life. All they lived to do was live for others, give to others.”
Elias Abboud, owner of the Lexington Medical Clinic where the sisters worked and which provides about 25 percent of all the medical care in the county, told the Clarion-Ledger, “The nurse practitioners “would really go the extra mile with patients. They would treat them for free. They would get them free samples and call the drug companies to get them insulin. For them, it was a passion and a love for people, a love for the needy.”
Sister Audrey Peterson, who worked with Sister Margaret and Sister Paula in Mississippi, said, “They were outdoor people. They had a garden and grew things and shared with their neighbors.” Sister Audrey praised them as “two very, very special, gentle ladies whose total commitment was being present to the poor. They were working with the absolute poorest of the poor.”
Mississippi of State Secretary of State also released a statement late Thursday: “Lynn and I grieve the loss of Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held, who were found violently killed in their home in Durant, Mississippi, this morning. Unbridled love and care for mankind has been met with unparalleled savagery. These faithful nuns worked tirelessly at the Lexington Medical Clinic to make the Holmes County community and Mississippi a better place to live. We hope justice will be swiftly served.”
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, said in a statement, “These sisters have spent years of dedicated service here in Mississippi. They absolutely loved the people in their community. ... We mourn with the people of Lexington and Durant and we pray for the Sisters of Charity, the School Sisters of St. Francis and the families left behind.”