Wednesday 28 September 2016

'Shock and grief' as nuns found murdered in Mississippi

Published 26/08/2016 | 03:16

Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agents inspect a car at the home of murdered nuns (AP)
Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agents inspect a car at the home of murdered nuns (AP)

Two nuns who worked as nurses and helped the poor in rural Mississippi may have been stabbed to death during a break-in and vehicle theft, it has emerged.

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Authorities would not say if they had a suspect for the attack in Durant. They did not release a cause of death, but the Rev Greg Plata said police told him the nuns had been stabbed.

The nuns were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, both 68. Their bodies were taken to a state crime laboratory for post-mortem examinations.

The women, both nurse practitioners, were found dead on Thursday morning when they did not report to work at a nearby clinic where they provided flu shots, insulin and other medical care for children and adults who could not afford it.

"They were two of the sweetest, most gentle women you can imagine. Their vocation was helping the poor," said Mr Plata, who oversees the 35-member Catholic church where the sisters attended.

Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said there were signs of a break-in at the home and the nuns' vehicle was missing.

Authorities said later they found the car, a blue Toyota Corolla, abandoned on a secluded street barely a mile from the murder scene.

Warren Strain, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said police found the car, which has been taken for forensic analysis.

Authorities did not release a motive for the killings and it was not clear if the nuns' religious work had anything to do with the attack.

"I have an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach," said Durant assistant police chief James Lee, who is Catholic.

Police chief John Haynes said officers were canvassing the area and checking video from surveillance cameras in town.

Sister Paula 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.

When asked about her ministry, Sister Paula was humble. "We simply do what we can wherever God places us," she said.

A video on the order's website detailed her work, interviewing her and her patients talking about the care they had received.

"What really appalls me is over 60% of the children live in poverty," Sister Paula said.

Earlier in her career she helped bring a tuberculosis outbreak under control in the region, said Lisa Dew, who managed the Lexington Medical Clinic where the sisters worked.

"They'll help anybody they can help. They'll give you the shirt off their back," she said.

At the clinic, the sisters cultivated relationships with drug company representatives, who often left extra free samples and asked about how treatment was going for some patients, Ms Dew said.

Sister Paula saw children and adults and helped in other ways.

"We do more social work than medicine sometimes," she told The Journey. "Sometimes patients are looking for a counsellor."

After Hurricane Katrina left much of the town was without power for weeks, the sisters allowed people to come to their house to cook because they had a gas stove.

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.

"These ladies didn't require any fanfare, any bells and whistles. They would just keep their nose to the grindstone, doing what had to be done," he said.

The small congregation at St Thomas typically gathered on Thursday nights for bible study and a meal.

Sister Margaret was a member of the School Sisters of St Francis based in Milwaukee, and its US Province Leadership team said members were "deeply shocked and grieved" by the killings.

They noted Sister Margaret had 49 years with the order and devoted herself to "living her ministry caring for and healing the poor".

Dr Elias Abboud worked with the sisters for years and agreed to help build the Lexington clinic because "you could feel their passion about serving the people, helping the poor. They loved it".

The Catholic community in Mississippi is relatively small. Of nearly three million people, the diocese says there are about 108,000 Catholics.

The two nuns provided almost all the care at the clinic, and many in the community wondered what would happen to it now - and the people it served.

"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," Ms 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."

AP

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