Sisters risked their lives to serve the poor

Four-year-old Jacobi was treated for a cold by Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill in October 2015 at the Lexington Medical Clinic in Lexington, Miss. (Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth)

Four-year-old Jacobi was treated for a cold by Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paula Merrill in October 2015 at the Lexington Medical Clinic in Lexington, Miss. (Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor

NAZARETH, Ky. — The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth commit in their mission statement to “risk their lives” in their ministry to the poor and vulnerable.

“You don’t know what that’s going to be like or look like,” said Sister Susan Gatz, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCNs). “But now we are experiencing that.”

Sister Paula Merrill, an SCN since 1979, was found murdered on Aug. 25 in her home in Durant, Miss. She and School Sister of St. Francis Margaret Held were stabbed to death in the home they shared. The two worked at the Lexington Medical Clinic as nurse practitioners, caring for the impoverished people of Holmes County.

“It’s a huge loss for the people there,” said Sister Gatz during an interview on the motherhouse campus Aug. 26. “They were really the heart of the clinic there.

“The loss to our congregation is huge,” too, she said. “They were valiant women.”

She noted that St. Vincent de Paul, co-founder of the Sisters of Charity, “invited his early sisters to really live in tune with those who are the poorest. That charism was very deep in Paula’s heart. She took her skills as a nurse practitioner and put them at the service of the poor and at the service of the charism. She loved it. It wasn’t a burden for her.”

As the sisters and their families mourn the slain women, they’ve asked for people to pray — not only for the victims and their loved ones but also for their attacker. It’s a way “to be faithful to their memories,” said Sister Gatz.

As of the evening of Aug. 26, police were still searching for suspects. Robbery was suspected as a motive. Police discovered a car missing from the sisters’ home on the evening of Aug. 25 parked on a secluded street about a mile from the home.

Their bodies were found by police after coworkers at the clinic requested law enforcement check on the women when they failed to arrive at work Aug. 25.

Sister Margaret Held, left, and Paula Merrill are pictured in an undated photo with a cake celebrating their service.

Sister Margaret Held, left, and Paula Merrill are pictured in an undated photo with a cake celebrating their service.

Sister Held, 68, was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis based in Milwaukee for 49 years. She first ministered in Mississippi as a social worker at a health center in Holly Springs in 1975. She relocated to Omaha, Neb., from 1981 to 1983 as a community health nurse with the Visiting Nurse Association before returning to Mississippi. She became a nurse practitioner in 1994, serving in Tupelo, Marks and Lexington.

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

She initially joined the SCNs in 1965 in the same group as Sister Gatz. 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.

“She was from Massachusetts, that’s a big leap to move down south,” noted Sister Gatz. “There was something about the people there and the need of the people there that drew her heart.”

Sister Merrill’s older sister, Rosemarie Merrill, still lives in their hometown in Massachusetts. But the two spent winters together, when Rosemarie travelled South to live in the Durant home and volunteer at the clinic.

She describes her baby sister as fun, stubborn and sarcastic. And the two often quibbled about which one was Martha and which one was Mary. When the Biblical sisters were the subject of the liturgy not long ago, Merrill said she called her sister and asked, “Have we decided which of us is Martha and which is Mary?” By the end of the call they decided they both have a little of Martha and a little of Mary inside them, Merrill said.

“Her faith was very strong. And she was a wonderful nurse,” Merrill said of her sister. “I feel so bad for the people of Holmes County because they’ve lost so much. The care they provided leaves a huge void. They would do anything for their patients.”

In a video produced in October by the SCNs about their ministry, Sister Merrill described her work in rural Holmes County, where she said 60 percent of the children live in poverty.

“I have been so edified by the faith of the people I have cared for,” she said in the video. “They challenge me, they inspire me.”

Merrill said the women “went above and beyond” their duties as nurse practitioners. They helped their patients pay for their medication and other medical supplies, she said.

“I can only trust God knew what he was doing,” she said. “I can only hope something positive will come out of this.”

Sister Gatz said the deaths do have one silver lining — they help the SCNs to be in solidarity with others who have lost a loved one to violence.

“What we are experiencing is what so many people around the world are experiencing. It puts us in touch with the pain, the hurt and the bewilderment that so many have experienced in deaths that come violently,” she said.

Sister John Loretto Mueller, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth who lives at the motherhouse in Nazareth, said during an interview on Aug. 26 that she just saw Sister Merrill during her visit last week. “I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that she’s gone,” she said.

She and Sister Merrill both served in Mississippi at one point and the two became close friends. 

“She was extremely kind and compassionate,” Sister Mueller said. “She will be sorely missed.”

Funeral Masses will be celebrated in the sisters’ religious communities and arrangements had not been announced as of Aug. 26.

In the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., a wake service is planned for Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m. at St. Thomas Church in Lexington. A Memorial Mass will be celebrated on Aug. 29 at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle in Jackson.

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