By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
NAZARETH, Ky. — Two years after Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill was murdered in her Mississippi home, those who knew her best are focused on remembering her legacy and forgiving her killer.
Sister Merrill and her friend, School Sister of St. Francis Margaret Held, were found murdered in the home they shared in Durant, Miss., on Aug. 25, 2016. Earlier this summer, Rodney Earl Sanders, 48, pleaded guilty to murdering the two women religious.
Family, friends and members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth community commemorated the second anniversary last Friday, Aug. 24, with Mass at St. Vincent Church on the motherhouse campus.
“Margaret and Paula were transformed constantly by their encounter with Jesus,” Sister Frances Krumpelman said in a reflection following the Gospel.
She asked those gathered
how they have changed in the two years since the deaths of the two beloved sisters.
“It seems to me that we, too, have let ourselves be transformed by our encounter with Jesus. We have been faithful to the Gospel as they were. The people in Mississippi have also,” Sister Krumpelman said.
Sisters Merill and Held served the impoverished people of Holmes County, Miss. They worked as nurse practitioners at the Lexington Medical Clinic, providing health care to people with few resources.
Their murders shocked the town and the sisters’ religious communities. But from the beginning, their religious communities, family and friends have sought mercy alongside justice.
Rosemarie Merrill, Sister Merrill’s older sister, attended the memorial Mass at Nazareth last week along with her brother John Merrill and his son David Merrill. She recalled the statement she read to her sister’s killer at his sentencing on June 21.
She expressed relief that Sanders was not given the death penalty, which prosecutors considered. She said her family was “morally and ethically opposed to the death penalty as were Paula and Margaret.”
“I have prayed for you and your family every day since your arrest and will continue to do so. I hope that during your continued prison time you will come to feel remorse for all of the evil deeds you have committed during your life and find peace,” Merrill said in her statement.
Sanders, who told police he went through the back door of the sisters’ home and stabbed them both to death, was sentenced June 21 to two life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders, 25 years for burglary of their home and an additional five years for stealing their car.
In an interview last week at the SCN motherhouse, Merrill said it was important to address Sanders and to offer forgiveness and mercy.
“Actually to a degree, forgiveness is selfish,” she said. “If you can’t forgive, it becomes this burden that you have to let go.”
Sister Susan Gatz, who served as president of the SCN community from 2013 until this past weekend when new leaders were installed, said she hopes Sanders accepts the forgiveness offered to him and reaches some sort of remorse.
During her statement in the courtroom in June, Sister Gatz spoke on behalf of the SCN community. Speaking directly to Sanders, she said the community supported the plea agreement for life in prison without parole, calling it “justice that recognizes all life is valuable.”
“It is justice that holds out hope, always, that love can break through the hardest barriers. Mr. Sanders, we will never forget what you did to them and the suffering that has caused so many. But because we believe in Christ and in the Gospel, we forgive you,” said Sister Gatz in her statement.
Sister Gatz and Merrill both agreed that the words of forgiveness and mercy directed toward Sanders on the day of his sentencing were likely foreign to him.
“He had a terrible life. It’s no excuse for what happened. But, that was likely the most forgiveness and compassion he experienced in his life. It seemed that he took it in,” Sister Gatz said, noting Sanders looked at the individuals delivering the statements.
Despite her forgiveness, frustration and uncertainty remain for the Merrill family and the Sisters of Charity. Sanders pleaded guilty but has yet to fully explain the events surrounding the deaths of the two religious.
“We do not know exactly when they died, if it was the 24th or the 25th,” Merrill said.
In her statement, Sister Gatz expressed sorrow over wondering about the two women’s last hours and minutes.
“How and especially why? Were they afraid? Did they defend or comfort one another? Did they beg for mercy?” she asked Sanders.
As a way to honor Sisters Merrill and Held, 14 congregations of women religious — the members of the Charity Federation — have decided to continue their presence and ministry in Mississippi.
Two Daughters of Charity and one Sister of Charity of Halifax now live in the house in Holmes County and minister at several service agencies, including the Lexington Community Clinic.
Sister Gatz said the events of the past two years remind her of the paschal mystery, one of the central tenets of the Catholic faith.
“In the midst of something so horrible, I still see life popping up as it were — life is almost stronger than death, which is the purpose of the resurrection. It doesn’t take away the sorrow, but it gives you some kind of hope.”