Monument honors lives of two religious sisters fatally stabbed in 2016

This memorial for Sr. Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, and Sr. Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, was blessed and dedicated May 20 in Durant, Mississippi. The women, who were murdered in their home last fall, were nurse practitioners at a local health clinic. (CNS photo / Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic)

A downpour of rain didn't dampen a dedication and blessing ceremony of a monument to honor the lives of Srs. Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, who were slain in their Durant home August 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.

Merrill was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth based in Nazareth, Kentucky, and 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 home.

"It was wonderful to see so many people come here from around the country," said Franciscan Fr. 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 larceny.

Among those at the memorial service were Durant city leaders, family members and longtime friends of 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, 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.

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)

After the unveiling, several people in attendance shared sentiments about 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.'"

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."

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 family.

"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.

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 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," Sr. 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 unobtrusively."

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

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