Arrest made in murder of sisters

The Mississippi Department of Public Safety announced late Aug. 26 that an arrest has been made in the murder of two women religious in Durant, Miss.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, has been charged with two counts of capital murder. Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill and School Sister of St. Francis Margaret Held were found stabbed to death in the home they shared in Durant on Aug. 25. The women served as nurse practitioners at the Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, Miss.

“After an exhaustive interview Friday evening, MBI agents were able to develop enough information to charge Sanders,” a statement posted on the department’s website said.

“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” said MBI Director Lt. Colonel Jimmy Jordan in the statement. “With the cooperation of the Durant and Kosciusko Police Departments, Holmes County Sheriff’s Department and the Attorney General Office this heinous crime has been resolved.”

The SCNs and the School Sisters of St. Francis issued a joint statement after the arrest, emphasizing their opposition to capital punishment.

“We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life,” the statement said. “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.”

Mississippi is one of 30 states in the U.S. that uses the death penalty.

Sister Held, 68, was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, based in Milwaukee, for 49 years. She served in Mississippi as a social worker at a health center in Holly Springs in the mid-1970s. She served as a community health nurse in Nebraska from 1981 to 1983 and then returned to Mississippi. She became a nurse practitioner in 1994 and subsequently served in Tupelo, Marks and Lexington, Miss.

Sister Merrill, 68, served on the provincial board of the SCNs and had been at Nazareth last week for meetings.

She initially joined the SCNs in 1965. She left the novitiate in 1968 and then returned in 1979. As a novice, she worked at Nazareth Home Health on the motherhouse campus. Then she spent one year at Flaget Hospital in Bardstown, Ky. In 1981, she departed for Holly Springs, Miss. She served in several impoverished areas of rural Mississippi until her death.

Sisters Merrill and Held were remembered in the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., at a wake service Aug. 28 at St. Thomas Church in Lexington and a Memorial Mass on Aug. 29 at the Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle in Jackson.

The Mass of Christian Burial for Sister Merrill will be celebrated on Sept. 2 in St. Vincent Church in Nazareth at 10:30 a.m.

(This story was updated on Aug. 29 with funeral and biographical information.)

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