By Maureen Smith
“I truly believe with all my heart that Margaret and Paula would tell us that we need to keep loving. Justice for a heinous crime demands punishment. It does not demand revenge.” Father Greg Plata, OFM, echoed the sentiments of the School Sisters of St. Francis, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the families of Sister Margaret Held, OSF, and Sister Paula Merrill, SCN, in his homily at their memorial Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle on Monday, Aug. 29.
On Thursday, Aug. 25, the pair did not show up at work so a coworker asked police to check on them. They had been murdered in their home in Durant. Local police teamed up with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations and by Friday authorities announced the arrest of 46-year-old Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko. He faces charges of capital murder, larceny and burglary. Members of Sister Merrill’s family as well as representatives from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN) were at his arraignment Monday afternoon.
“In the courtroom, the family of Rodney Earl Sanders apologized to the four members of the SCN family that were present and to the family of Sister Paula Merrill. As Marie Sanders broke down in tears, the son went to Sister Susan and apologized. Sister Susan came to Mrs. Sanders’ side and the two embraced and cried. It was a powerful grace-filled moment. We continue to hold all in prayer,” said Diane Curtis, director of communications for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
Holmes County District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver told the Associated Press she will take the families’ wishes into account when deciding how to prosecute the case.
The day before the Mass and hearing, representatives of the religious communities and families issued a statement opposing the death penalty for the suspect charged in their murders.
“Many people will be dismayed, even angered at the joint statement the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of Charity made stating that they are opposed to the death penalty that could be imposed on the person who committed this terrible crime. But think of the powerful statement that makes. At the heart of Christianity is forgiveness. ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Forgiveness isn’t something we do on our own. It is something we choose to do with God’s grace,” continued Father Plata.
Rosemarie Merrill, older sister of Sister Paula Merrill, said she forgives whoever did it, but she does want to know why.
Sisters Held and Merrill, both nurse practitioners, started their ministry in 1983 in Holly Springs with Sacred Heart Southern Missions. Sister Julene Stromberg, who still works with a group of lay associates in Holly Springs, and Sister Ramona Schmidtknecht, who volunteers at Holy Family School, offered these words together. “We are simply heartbroken. Sisters Paula and Margaret were so very caring. It was their mission to reach out and take care of the poorest of the poor. They did so much here in Holly Springs, but also in Oxford, Marks and Durant – not simply tending to a person’s physical ailments, but ministering to the ‘whole person.’”
Sisters Held and Merrill went on to serve in Tupelo and at a University of Mississippi medical clinic in Lexington. In 2009, that clinic downsized.
When the Lexington Medical Clinic opened in 2010, the sisters told Fabvienen Taylor of Mississippi Catholic they would stay “forever, or as long as the Lord wills it.”
Sister Susan Gatz, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Sister Rosemarie Rombalski, of the School Sisters of St. Francis, went into the house Sunday for prayer, closure and reflection. In the kitchen, they discovered a loaf of bread in a bread maker. The simple act – typical of the Sisters who were known for being generous with their good food – turned into a life-giving symbol for the communities.
“Marge and Paula really had that sense of offering bread to each other. The bread of life, the bread of energy, the bread of hope,” said Sister Rombalski. She said the pair always wanted to fulfill Jesus’ will for their lives. “Jesus said to us clearly, ‘I am no longer with you with my hands and feet so you, Marge and Paula, and all those you touch and all those who believe, you become my hands and feet you become my eyes, you become my love and my energy that reaches out to others.’” she said. “So Marge and Paula’s life did not stop here, that love and energy that was given to each one of us is now in each of us and gets extended to more and more so their life continues in us,” she went on to say.
The Sisters broke the loaf in half to share with their respective communities in Milwaukee and Nazareth, Kentucky.
The bread was not the only comfort the Sisters sent, according to Sisters Gatz and Rombalski. Earlier in the week, Sister Gatz was speaking to a reporter in a conference room at her congregation’s headquarters when butterfly somehow got inside and landed on her shirt. Later the same day, she saw a butterfly on her windowsill in her office.
Sister Rombalski said she was outside praying about the murders when a whole group of butterflies appeared and fluttered around her for quite some time.
When the women compared stories they knew the experiences contained a message. “Butterflies are a symbol of the resurrection,” said Sister Gatz. “Marge and Paula were telling us they are OK,” added Sister Rombalski.
Sunday evening, almost 300 people gathered at Lexington St. Thomas for a vigil. In addition to the more than 100 people packed inside the tiny sanctuary, another 200 watched a video feed from a tent on the lawn, set up by mostly non-Catholic teenagers from the local Christian academy. Bishop Joseph Kopacz presided over the service, but Father Plata, the pastor of the usually tiny congregation, offered a homily. He remembered the Sisters as great cooks, gardeners, generous souls and hopeful women of the gospel. “As Christians, we only have one choice, to move on in hope,” he said.
As the families cope with the loss of their loved ones, they also worry about the people of Durant and Lexington. “A big hole in the universe and in our hearts,” is how Annette Held described losing her older sister. “Sister Margaret was a wonderful and gracious person, always a concerned about others and certainly the spiritual leader of the family. This tragedy is leaving a big hole for us. We are also worried because there is no one to carry their ministry now and that has been very important for so long for the community they lived in and for our family too. We keep wishing we knew what will happen next at the clinic,” she added.
Rosemarie Merrill expressed a similar concern. “Her (Sr. Paula’s) faith was very strong. And she was a wonderful nurse,” Rosemarie 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.”
The Sisters’ bodies have returned to their motherhouses for funerals and burials. The Sisters of Charity have started a fund to continue their work. Learn more on their website, www.scnfamily.org.
(Elsa Baughman of Mississippi Catholic and Marnie McAllister of the Record, the paper for the Archdiocese of Louisville, contrubuted to this article)
By Maureen Smith