By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill lived as Christ did — serving people who are sick and destitute; she died as he did, too, at the hand of violence.
And just as Christ did, she would have forgiven her killer, said Sister of Charity of Nazareth Adeline Fehribach during the Mass of Christian Burial for Sister Merrill.
The Funeral Mass was celebrated on Sept. 2, just over a week since Sister Merrill and her friend, School Sister of St. Francis Margaret Held, were found murdered in the home they shared in Holmes County, Mississippi. Sister Held’s funeral was celebrated Sept. 2 in Milwaukee, where her religious community is based.
Sister Merrill’s Funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Vincent Church in Nazareth, Ky., on the motherhouse campus of the SCNs. The expansive church was filled nearly to overflowing with SCNs, their associate members and friends and representatives of other religious communities. The family of Sister Merrill also attended.
In a light moment during the liturgy, she was remembered for her spot-on impression of Donald Duck and her vast collection of duck memorabilia.
But Sister Merrill’s legacy will be the way she lived, giving “her whole self to make life a little more hopeful” in the small impoverished towns of Mississippi, said Sister Susan Gatz, president of the congregation. She noted during her opening remarks that Sister Merrill and Sister Held served for more than 30 years as nurses and later as nurse practitioners in rural communities around Mississippi.
Sister Fehribach, who spoke during the liturgy of the word, began by saying, “Our Sister Paula Merrill knew Christ very well.”
“She sat at his feet every time she sat at her stool at one of her clinics,” Sister Fehribach said. “She listened not only to ‘where it hurts,’ but also to the stories her patients needed to tell. She listened when so many others would not listen.”
Her patients told stories “of jobs lost, of a minimum wage not covering both medicine and food for the table, of home violence, and racism experienced, of becoming hooked on pain pills because some doctor had overused a prescription pad, of just not being able to resist the snacks despite being a diabetic,” Sister Fehribach said. “She listened with love, knowing she was encountering the suffering Christ.”
Sister Merrill also prayed for her suffering brothers and sisters, and sometimes wept for the community of Holmes County “that could be so different if only the cry of those on the margins could somehow be heard by those who had the power to improve the lives of those she saw day after day,” said Sister Fehribach.
In Sister Merrill’s compassionate spirit, forgiveness and concern for her attacker would be important to Sister Merrill, Sister Fehribach noted.
Immediately after Sisters Merrill and Held were found murdered, their religious communities expressly stated that their prayers went out both to those investigating the case and to the perpetrator. On Aug. 26, law enforcement officers arrested Rodney Earl Sanders, a 46-year-old man living in the Holmes County area who had a history of robbery. Sanders has been charged with two counts of capital murder. His family apologized to the sisters during his Aug. 30 arraignment.
“As strange as it may sound to those who did not know Paula, if Paula could meet the person who killed her, she would not focus on what the person had done to her. Her heart would be broken at what had happened to her friend Margaret, and she may even have to work at getting over her anger at the fact that her patients had lost their one life-line to a better quality of life,” Sister Fehribach said. “But as she worked through her pain and anger at the harm done to others, I believe she would look upon the one who caused all the harm and see in that face the suffering Christ as well.
Sister Fehribach said, “I can almost hear her say with compassion, ‘What kind of violence did you experience that could allow you to do what you have done to me, to my friend, and to this community? Who hurt you that much? How can I help you let go of some of that pain so that you can once again know yourself to be made in the image and likeness of God and be able to have compassion for other people?’ ”
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis also have stated that they do not want prosecutors to pursue capital punishment. They said in a joint statement, “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith that we value life. 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.”