Monument honors lives of two religious sisters fatally stabbed in 2016

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic

By Ruthie Robison

DURANT, Miss. (CNS) — A
downpour of rain didn’t dampen a dedication and blessing ceremony of a monument
to honor the lives of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, who were slain
in their Durant home Aug. 25, 2016. They were both 68.

A crowd of about 100 gathered
the afternoon of May 20 in Durant’s Liberty Park to pay tribute to the two sisters,
who both made a lasting impact on the community in which they resided for the last 15 years of their lives.

Sister Merrill was a member of
the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth based in Nazareth, Kentucky, and Sister Held
belonged to the School Sisters of St. Francis congregation based in Milwaukee. The
two nurse practitioners worked at Lexington Medical Clinic and attended St.
Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, located about 10 miles west from their

“It was wonderful to see so many
people come here from around the country,” said Franciscan Father Greg Plata, pastor
of St. Thomas, who led the service. “Even though it was a horrible day
weather-wise, that did not deter from the joy of the day that we come together.
I think that every time I go that way, (the monument) will be a place for me to
stop and say a prayer and be thankful to God for these two amazing women. It’s
just a great way to remember our sisters.”

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46,
of Kosciusko, Mississippi, later confessed to fatally stabbing the two women
and stealing their car. He was charged with capital murder, burglary and grand

Among those at the memorial
service were Durant city leaders, family members and longtime friends of
Sisters Held and Merrill, staff members and patients of Lexington Medical Clinic, and
parishioners of St. Thomas.

Durant Mayor Tasha Davis and
Jackson Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz were featured speakers, and there were songs,
prayer, Scripture readings and the unveiling of the monument.

“I know it is a sad event that we’re here, but
they were such wonderful people,” said Davis, as she welcomed the crowd. “The
Bible teaches us to give honor where honor is due, and we can all agree that it
is befitting to honor these two ladies who left an everlasting mark on the city
of Durant and Holmes County as a whole.”

Before blessing the monument,
Bishop Kopacz spoke of the sisters’ service to their communities.

“Just as from the heavens the
rain and the snow come down and accomplish what they’re sent to do, so Sister
Paula and Sister Margaret came to these communities, accomplished God’s mission
and returned to life fulfilled in heaven,” he said.

After the unveiling, several
people in attendance shared sentiments about Sisters Held and Merrill.

Mary James, who worked with the sisters
at Lexington Medical Clinic, said that she and the other staff members at the
clinic were truly blessed to have known the two women.

“They took me under their wings,
and we became family,” she said. “The sisters’ angelic presence was so great.
We miss them daily. … Whenever we get a little down or teary-eyed, we
remember these words, ‘Let love win.’ If the sisters were here today, they
would probably say something like this: ‘There’s no love like forgiveness, and
there’s no forgiveness without love.'”

Sister Held’s brother, James,
spoke of her love for the people of Durant and Holmes County.

“We always tried to convince her
to come back to the Midwest,” he said. “We never could convince her to come
back, and we missed her. She loved you so much, and she stayed and she gave her
life for all of you.”

Sister Merrill’s family was
unable to attend the ceremony. Connie Blake, a longtime friend of Merrill’s and
an associate with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, spoke on behalf of the

“Sister Paula was my friend for
over 49 years,” she said. “One thing she said she always wanted to do was to
follow what we’ve all been asked to do, and that’s to love one another and to
care for one another, and indeed that was her life’s work.”

Blake said she and Merrill’s
family are humbled and overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support they
continue to receive.

Sisters Held and Merrill
“would be astonished and somewhat embarrassed by all of this attention,”
she said. “Paula and Margaret were quiet, humble and simple women, who lived
out their passion to serve the underserved in Mississippi.”

After a closing prayer and
blessing by Father Plata, a memorial Mass was celebrated at St. Thomas,
followed by a fish fry.

“I think it isn’t just their
deaths that are important, it’s their lives,” Sister Tonya Severin, vice
provincial for the Western province of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, said
later. “They lived with the message of Jesus, that we are to give of
ourselves in loving service to others, and that’s what they did so

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Robison is a contributor to
Mississippi Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Jackson.

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