Cardinal Ramazzini asks for an inn with pilgrims from Carthage and Forest

By Berta Mexidor
JACKSON – This year two parishes had a special inn or Posada, with the presence of Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of Guatemala, who became a pilgrim asking for an inn for the birth of the Savior. In the parishes of St. Anne Carthage and St. Michael Forest, cardinal Ramazzini was accompanied by the priests of the parishes, Odel Medina, ST and Roberto Mena, ST, respectively, and was followed by dozens of pilgrims, including numerous children dressed as Mary and Joseph.
As is tradition, during the walking tour, several songs were sung, the Holy Rosary was prayed and the pilgrims carried candles. At the end of the road, a few blocks walking, the pilgrims reach the house of one of the parishioners who open the door, after the well-known Christmas carol, where the pilgrims, headed by Joseph, explain to the owner of the house, that Mary being pregnant of the Word made flesh, Jesus, needs a place to rest.

In Carthage and Forest, the cardinal accompanied the pilgrims asking for Posada, a tradition before Christmas that represents the Holy Family in search of refuge. History tells that they looked for an inn until, at the end, they found a place in a stable.
In the parish of St. Anne Carthage, cardinal Ramazzini sang “Silent Night” with parishioners, a song that reminds that Christmas Eve is a night of peace and an announcement of the gift that Jesus gives – peace and love.
Cardinal Ramazzini blessed the house and everyone present. At the end of the Inn, as is common, there was music, prayers and Guatemalan food, accompanied by a hot punch to remedy the cold outside.
At St Michael Forest, after the Posada, a Mass was celebrated by Bishop Joseph Kopacz, Cardinal Ramazzini was the homilist and Father Roberto Mena, St the concelebrant. In the end, the parishioners enjoyed traditional Guatemalan dances and food in the spirit of Christmas.
Cardinal Ramazzini arrived to Mississippi to give words of encouragement to families affected by immigration raids, coinciding with the time of Advent. The cardinal explained, in his visits in both parishes, that the tribulation of the Holy Family seeking refuge and the humility of the place of Jesus’ birth demonstrates Jesus gave himself to serve humanity. The Holy Family only found a place where shepherds kept animals and tools, in a very humble place “… and it was there that the son of God was born, the one who has power over humanity,” said Cardinal Ramazzini. He came “to teach us that giving ourselves to others makes us happy.”
He added that “to be Christian is to be consistent with your faith and help each other, … if [you] believe that God is love, that is the way forward.”

Featured photo . . . Roaring ‘20s at Sacred Heart Winona

WINONA – Sacred Heart Catholic Church sponsored their 8th annual Ladies’ Holiday Luncheon on Dec. 11, 2019. Pictured are Krystal Hogan (in front), Mike Lucio, Father Arokia Savio and Cecilia Lucio. This year’s theme was “A Roaring 20s Christmas.” With a backdrop of black, white and gold, guests were treated to an Art Deco atmosphere with a menu from the 1920s and original music from the era. They even had a photo booth! Guests were also able to take home a recipe book of their meal, treats and door prizes. (Photo by Cathy Edwards, OFS)

Parish calendar

SPIRITUAL ENRICHMENT

BROOKSVILLE The Dwelling Place, Introduction to Center Prayer, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2020 beginning with supper at 6:30 p.m. The retreat will help to enable you to spend time learning how to practice centering prayer and learning about how God uses this to not only transform our inner lives, but to also transform the world around us. Presenter is Reverend Anne-Russell Bradley, a United Methodist pastor in Columbus. She is a certified Spiritual Director through Journey Partners. Donation: $100. Details: (662) 738-5348 or dwellpl@gmail.com.
GREENWOOD Locus Benedictus Retreat Center, Introduction to Spiritual Warfare – What Every Christian Should Know presented by Father David Seid, O.P., Dr. Sheryl Jones and Joyce Pellegrin on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 17-18.
“The Real Saint Francis from Sentimentality to Reality” presented by Father Joachim Studwell, O.F.M. on Saturday Jan. 25. Details: For more information, call (762) 299-1232 or info@locusbenedictus.org.
NEW ORLEANS, LA Our Lady of the Cenacle Retreat Center, Finding God in the Now! Every Day Experience, Jan. 17-19. In this retreat, we will learn to recognize God’s presence in the here and now. We will look for the good in challenging situations and through our high and low points in life Presenter: Reverend Jim Sichko. Actual cost of the retreat is $350; minimum payment is $250 and includes accommodations and meals. Details: Susan Halligan at (504) 267-9604 or https://www.neworleansretreats.org/retreats.
Living the Virtue of Hope, Jan. 24-26. Presenter: Reverend Joe Krafft. Actual cost of the retreat is $350; minimum payment is $250 and includes accommodations and meals. Details: Susan Halligan at (504) 267-9604 or https://www.neworleansretreats.org/retreats.

PARISH, SCHOOL AND FAMILY EVENTS

AMORY St. Helen, Book Discussion Group will discuss Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates at 12 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 13, at the parish hall. Everyone is invited to read the book and join the discussion. Details: church office (662) 256-8392.
CLARKSDALE Catholic Community of St. Elizabeth, Abide in Me, nine-week program will meet on Wednesdays at 12 p.m. in the church meeting room. Come and experience scripture through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Specific dates and details will be forthcoming. Details: church office (662) 624-4301 or Celese Zepponi at (662) 645-2113.
GLUCKSTADT St. Joseph, Parish Mission “Life of Passion, Life of Love” Sunday, Jan. 26 at 6:30 pm through Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 6:30–7:30 pm. International Catholic speaker and author, Adam Storey, Director of Marriage Ministry Department, Diocese of Des Moines. Details: (601) 856-2054.
NATCHEZ St. Mary Basilica, Mary Mother Guardian of the Faith, Patricia Talbot visits Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 6:30 p.m. She is from Cuenca, Ecuador and will share her experience of faith and the desire of the heart of our Mother to live a life of true conversion. She will talk about the dangers that threaten our faith and how to defend it with love. The talk is in Spanish with English translation. Details: Ruth Powers at (601) 445-5616 or www.guardianadelafe.com.
OLIVE BRANCH Queen of Peace, CALLING ALL MEN, Saturday, Feb. 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Just bring yourself to relax with the Lord Jesus Christ. Details: church office (662) 895-5007.
PEARL St. Jude, Men’s Retreat, all men are invited and is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, on Saturday, Jan. 25 from 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. The theme is Jesuit spirituality. Retreat directors are Deacon John McGregor, Father Lincoln Dall and Cathy Hayden. Focus will be the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola and his approach to spirituality, including the spiritual exercises, lectio divina, imaginative contemplation and the examen. There is no cost to attend. Details: Call the church office by Jan. 22 to make a reservation (601) 939-3181.
SOUTHAVEN Christ the King, CALLING ALL WOMEN, Saturday, Feb. 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Just bring yourself to relax with the Lord Jesus Christ and experience His love in many different ways. For the women by the women. Details: church office (662) 342-1073.

YOUTH BRIEFS

MADISON St. Joseph School – “Jeans, Jazz and Bruin Blues,” St. Joe’s Annual Draw Down is Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 from 6-9 p.m. Sponsorship opportunities are available and tickets are on sale now. Details: To sponsor or purchase tickets, visit stjoebruins.com or call the school office (601) 898-4800.
MERIDIAN St. Patrick School, Countdown 2020, the school’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. in the Family Life Center. It will include dinner, 50/50 drawings, silent auction, wine pull and live music. Wine and spirits will be available. Cost: Tickets are $100 each and may be split. Details: Tickets are available from any St. Patrick school advisory council member or the school office at (601) 482-6044.

Parish celebrates 75 years and new renovations

By Laura Grisham
WALLS – In one of the northern-most towns of the Delta, a crowd of about thirty invited guests gathered recently for a Mass in honor the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Sacred Heart Church. Those assembled represented many of the founding families and familiar faces that have been a part of the congregation and the missions over the past seven-and-a-half decades.
Many of those present had not been inside the little church in a number of years. Prior to Mass, Father Jack Kurps, SCJ, took them on a tour of the renovations. Recalling the old sanctuary, he said, “I don’t know whether the statue of the Sacred Heart came first, or whether the plastic Jesus did,” noting the importance of Sacred Heart Auto League to the missions.
Gone are the old wooden pews and floors of the original church. With new seating and tile, better acoustics were accomplished. Vivid paint, richly colored marble and refurbished windows complete the new look. The new layout provides an open and inviting space for worship and prayer.
Father Kurps also provided some background on the custom altar, ambo and base upon which the statue of the Sacred Heart rests — all of which are new additions. A Pennsylvania artist carved the stunning wood pieces using the bases of trees to garner the unique look. The new crucifix is a mixed-media collaboration between the original artist and another Pennsylvania sculptor.

Other beautiful pieces also adorn the church. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hangs watchfully from the ceiling. Constructed from antique furniture pieces, one must carefully study it to discern its parts. Flanking the altar, one cannot escape the gaze of the Faithful Companions and Angels of the Heart. The two commissioned paintings honor the saints and angels, and our benefactors, who are devoted to the Sacred Heart.
During his homily, Father Kurps marveled at how a conversation in 1941 between an SCJ and a priest in Natchez, resulted in the formation of this church, and subsequently six parishes, Sacred Heart Southern Missions and two schools. Kurps shared highlights of the struggles and triumphs of those early years.
At that time, the Catholic population in this area was the smallest in the state. Headquartered in Water Valley in 1942, Father John Flanagan, SCJ, found himself serving a mere 29 Catholics scattered over the 2,000 or so square miles of Marshall, Benton and Tippah counties. The next year, Father Flanagan moved to Holly Springs and was given the charge for priestly work in DeSoto, Tate, Marshall, Benton and Tippah counties by Bishop Gerow of Natchez.
In January of 1944, Mass was celebrated for the first time in DeSoto County at the home of Mrs. L.A. Johnson. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Patterson (Patty) Harris family hosted the service, and in mid-February, the O’Donnell family had the privilege. By that time, there were 40 adults and children squeezed into living rooms and parlors. The tiny Catholic population in northwest Mississippi was growing.
On Feb. 21, 1944, Father William Noelken, SCJ, the U.S. Provincial for the Priests of the Sacred Heart, gave approval for a small church in DeSoto County. Plans were quickly drawn up but constructing a church during wartime was no easy feat. Money, supplies and workers were scarce. The War Production Department was another hurdle. Established to prevent unnecessary construction, the government agency halted many a project. After many applications, permission was finally granted on June 6, 1944. A month later, Patty Harris generously donated land for the church and ground was broken.
In August, Father Stephen Hoyga, SCJ, joined Father Flanagan as construction continued. Remarkably, just three months later, the date for dedication was set.
On Nov. 26, 1944, the church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Recognizing the parishes in Southaven, Olive Branch, Hernando, Senatobia and Tunica, Father Jack remarked, “From start of this small church at the northwest corner of Mississippi, a lot has happened.”
Noting the contributions of the School Sisters of St. Francis, Father Kurps talked about the positive impact of our schools through the years. He also commended the SHSM housing and social service ministries and all that has been done to lift up the poor in our area.
“Because of the faith of all of these men and women, the faith has taken hold in northwest Mississippi. … It will be interesting to know what this will all look like 75 years from now,” said Father Kurps. “I hope that the progress made in the last 75 years is nothing compared to what is accomplished in the next.”

ChristLife brings parishioners closer to each other and Jesus

By Joanna Puddister King
NATCHEZ – After a series of book studies, a group of St. Mary Basilica parishioners and leadership were inspired to come up with an action plan to move the parish forward to deepen their relationship with Christ. The answer to their prayers was the ChristLife program.
Ruth Powers, program coordinator at St. Mary Basilica said that Discovering Christ, the first program of ChristLife, was probably one of the most successful programs the parish has ever done.

On Sunday evenings during October and November, an average 110 people attended each of the seven weeks of the Discovering Christ program that invites people of all backgrounds to open the door to encounter Jesus. Each session of the series began with a fellowship meal, followed by praise and worship with music by parishioners Drew David and Melissa Johnson. The sessions then progressed into witnessing a video teaching by the ChristLife team, followed by small group discussions on the material.
The series was open to all and brought together parishioners from all of the Natchez parishes – St. Mary Basilica, Holy Family and Assumption.
Overall, the parish had 14 small groups formed for discussion for each of the sessions, an aspect many found so valuable.
“I enjoyed the discussion and finding out that others are going through the same things as me. It made me think more about my relationship with God as an ongoing process and not just at Mass,” says Steve Neilsen, one of the small group leaders.
St. Mary Basilica parishioner, Amada Coley was also impacted by the small group connections and by knowing she is not alone in her need to be closer to Christ.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to set aside this special, precious time to focus on God and reflect on my relationship with Jesus,” said Coley.
Because of the interest expressed at the end of Discovering Christ, preliminary planning is underway to offer the second portion of Christlife, Following Christ, in the Spring.

Youth news

High fives for fire safety

MERIDIAN – Firefighter Lee Bohl, with the city of the Meridian Fire Department, gives a “high five” to kindergarten student Kayleigh Johnson on Oct. 22 at St. Patrick School. Preschool and kindergarten students learned about fire safety and got a close up view of a fire truck. (Photo by Celeste Saucier)

Fun times in Vicksburg

VICKSBURG – students are ready for the Spooky Sprint 1-mile fun fun to start. (Photos by Rebecca Weatherford)

Chess masters in training

SOUTHAVEN – Lucas Delgado participated in the Sacred Heart School chess tournament on Saturday, Nov. 2. Lucas’s older brother Diego was the tournament champion. (Photo by Sister Margaret Sue Broker)

The Saints go marching

COLUMBUS – Annunciation sixth graders observed All Saints Day by presenting their Hall of Saints project to other students and visitors. Students worked on their Saints project for several weeks, learning about the lives of these special people in history. (Photo by Katie Fenstermacher)

Bearing Gifts

GREENVILLE – Students at St. Joe Greenville celebrate All Saints Day Mass with Father Aaron Williams. (Photo by Nikki Thompson)

Festivities around Diocese

MERIDIAN – On Nov. 2, St. Patrick School held their annual Variety Show fundraiser. The event was organized by Dr. Danny and Rory Santiago and featured many talented acts from the catholic community. Shown are members of the St. Patrick School staff from left, Montse Frias, principal, Helen Reynolds, Celeste Saucier, Lauren Walker and Sharon Shipman performing a routine to the song “I Will Follow Him” from the movie “Sister Act.” (Photo by Wade Saucier)
JACKSON – The St. Richard annual CardinalFest was a rockin’ hit on Oct. 27, with the Fondren Guitars students Rock Band performing. Pictured is former St. Richard student, Amelia Haydel singing and playing guitar, and Seamus Priest on drums. The Fondren Guitar Band is led by St. Richard alum and parent Patrick Harkins. (Photo by Tereza Ma)
GREENVILLE – The men of Sacred Heart fried fish for their annual Harvest Festival fundraiser on Saturday, Nov. 2. (Photo by Maurice Mosley)

MERIDIAN – Father Augustine in the Halloween spirit at his parish’s celebration. (Photo courtesy by St. Patrick)

COLUMBUS – Annunciation students trick or treat through classrooms. (Photo by Katie Fenstermacher)

JACKSON – On Oct. 29 school development directors met with chancery staff members Rebecca Harris and Joanna King. The team talked about strategy and upcoming events. (Photo by Tereza Ma)

Priest delivers powerful testimony during Homeland Security hearings

By Berta Mexidor
JACKSON – Father Odel Medina tugged at heartstrings as he read a letter written by a child pleading for his father’s freedom after being jailed since the federal agent raids on Mississippi last summer.
Missionary Servant Father Medina, pastor of St. Therese Kosciusko and St. Anne Carthage, was among the many people presenting testimonies and stories and expressing concerns during public hearings Nov. 7 in Tougaloo before U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security members.
Committee members attending the hearing included Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Al Green (D-TX.) Also on hand was Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN), who heads up the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Looking back. More than 600 federal agents raided chicken processing plants across Mississippi Aug. 7 resulting in the arrests of 680 people. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid was the largest statewide workplace operation in U.S. history with a price tag of $1.3 million so far according to reports.
For the most part, those arrested were not dangerous criminals, but rather workers in many cases outstaying their visas. There were six more serious charges involving domestic violence and two cases of battery that were reported but details were unclear. One recent report indicated that 300 are still living in detention.
In the aftermath of the raids, many are calling the operation inhuman and unnecessary. During hearings, Jere Miles, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security investigation office in New Orleans, was questioned on the project’s costs. Other questions directed at him focused on the timing and execution of operations that took place on the first day of school when children were heading back to classes after the summer break.
According to reports, only county school districts were contacted about the raids. Communications with other schools were lacking and left educational facilities in crisis management at the end of the day when the parents were not there to pick up their children. Reports say that ICE provided 11 phones for the more the 680 detainees to use on that day to get in touch with loved ones and to seek help.

Miles defended his agency saying that his office was incompliance with the law, and as a result of the raid, 400 cases of illegally use of SSN or identity theft were found. When Mississippi Catholic questioned Miles about the outcome of the raids, he said, “After this hearing and each raid, the agency tries to learn how to improve this kind of operation. We are taking all the suggestions, but there are some things we cannot change because we need to take care of our country,” he explained about the administration’s press on immigration and security and enforcement efforts.
Several Catholic communities of the Diocese of Jackson have been facing the consequences of the immigration raids over the past months. In emergency response and social justice efforts, the diocese has been working with parishes to provide assistance to families faced with hardships struggling to pay rent, buy food and pay bills after heads of households lost work due to the raids.
Father Medina is heading up long-term recovery efforts at crisis centers established as part of the diocese’s humanitarian aid efforts in coordination with Catholic Charities and other community organizations joining in the outreach. Help including financial assistance and legal advice is offered as part of outreach to families in the parishes and also residents living within the community-at-large touched by the raids.
Father Mike O’Brien, pastor of Sacred Heart in Canton, and Father Roberto Mena, Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity and pastor of St. Michael Parish in Forest, are also part of the diocese’s humanitarian aid initiatives.
During the Tougaloo hearing, Father Medina gathered with community leaders who one-by-one shared their testimonies and concerns. They included Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee; Lorena Quiroz Lewis of Working Together Mississippi; Canton Mayor William Truly; Clift Johnson, director of MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law and Attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey, president of the Board of Legacy Education and Empowerment Foundation.
One of the most troubling aspects of the raids on the minds of many speaking at the hearing is the difficult situations of the families, who are struggling to make ends meet. According to records, about 1,000 children are affected by the raids including the minors now without both parents and the ongoing psychological, economic and social effects. The language barrier between Guatemalan detainees, who speak Mam, a Mayan language, is also a concern that calls for special translators.
Monserrat Ramirez and Roberto Tijerina, members of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), broadcasted the hearing on the Facebook page of Mississippi Resiste, a grassroots organization dedicated to helping the immigrant community.
SONG’s activists from Mississippi and other states are uniting forces with South East Immigrant Rights Network. Together, they are creating a network of individuals including lawyers, local authorities and Catholic lay and priests giving time and talents to help families in need of assistance and to get back on their feet.
During hearings, Father Medina talked about the generous support received from people everywhere after the raids. Donations poured into Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Jackson from 40 different states and several organizations reflecting the compassion and concerns that the people of the United States of America have for the immigrant families of Mississippi now in crisis and seeking social justice, guidance and help.
Father Medina thanked members of the committee for his opportunity to speak on the behalf of people in the diocese’s family of parishes and to read the letter of the child from his own parish family hurting and traumatized in the aftermath of the raids. “I assure you of my prayers. God bless you,” said the priest with a heavy heart, as he closed his talk.

(Linda Reeves contributed to this story.)

40 Years of Our Lady of Guadalupe

December features two significant Marian holidays: The Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. Bishop John Joseph Chanche, first bishop of the Diocese of Jackson had a special devotion to Immaculate Conception and helped bring the devotion to the United States.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is Patroness of the Americas. The feast celebrates Maria’s appearance to San Juan Diego.
The Diocese of Jackson has hosted observance of this feast since 1979, when the Bishops Joseph Brunini and William R. Houck and father Mario Vizacaino of SEPI celebrated the first Spanish Mass. The Guadalupe celebrations will include processions, the Holy Rosary, Mass, a dramatization of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Mañanitas” (traditional Mexican birthday song).
Posadas is a Latin tradition to recreate the trip Joseph and Mary undertook seeking refuge. Many communities will organize multi-day Inns as part of the Advent season.
Here is a list of Guadalupe celebrations throughout the diocese. For more details and schedules of Posadas, please contact your parish.

Amory, St. Helen –Thursday, Dec. 12
Canton, Sacred Heart – Sunday Dec. 15, 9:30 am
Carthage, St. Anne – Saturday, Dec. 14, 10 a.m.
Cleveland, Our Lady of Victories – Thursday, Dec. 12, 5:30 p.m.
Corinth, St. James de Less – Saturday, Dec. 14, 6 p.m.
Forest, St. Michael – Thursday, Dec. 12, 6 p.m. and Guadalupana at Krudop Center, Sunday, Dec. 15, 11 a.m.
Greenville, Sacred Heart – Thursday, Dec. 12, 6 p.m.
Greenwood, St. Francis – Thursday, Dec. 12, 6 p.m.
Hazlehurst, St. Martin – Mañanitas, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 7-9 p.m. and Mass, Thursday, Dec 12, 6.30 p.m.
Holly Springs, St. Joseph – Thursday, Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m.
Houston, Immaculate Heart of Mary – Mañanitas, Dec. 12, 5 a.m., and Mass, 7 p.m.
Jackson, St. Peter Cathedral – Sunday, Dec. 8, 11:30 a.m.
Jackson, St Therese – Mañanitas, Thursday, Dec. 12, 8-10 p.m. and Mass, Sunday, Dec. 15, 12:30 p.m.
Kosciusko, St. Therese – Sunday, Dec. 15, 1 p.m.
Meridian, St. Patrick – Sunday, Dec. 8, 2:30 p.m.
New Albany, St. Francis – Sunday, December 15, 6 p.m.
Olive Branch, Queen the Peace – Thursday, Dec. 12, 7 p.m.
Oxford, St. John – Mañanitas and Guadalupana Mass, Thursday, Dec.12, 4:30 a.m.
Pearl, St. Jude – Saturday, Dec.14, 7 p.m.
Pontotoc, St. Christopher – Wednesday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m. Mañanitas, Thursday, Dec. 12, 5:30 a.m.
Ripley, St. Matthew – Bilingual Mass, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 7 p.m.; Mañanitas at midnight; Mass, Thursday, Dec. 12, 7 p.m.
Senatobia, St. Gregory – Thursday, Dec. 12 at 5:30 pm
Southaven, Christ the King – Mañanitas, Thursday, Dec. 12, 5:30 a.m. and Mass at 7 p.m.
Tupelo, St. James – Sunday, December 15, 11 a.m.

The sisters of Holmes County, integral to community

By Dan Stockman
LEXINGTON – It’s a Wednesday, and three teenagers are in Sr. Sheila Conley’s tiny office, learning about finances.
Less than a block away, Sr. Mary Walz, a social worker, is at the Lexington Medical Clinic, running a diabetes education program.
Down the road in Durant, Sr. Madeline Kavanaugh is working on a statewide re-entry program for people being released from the state prison system.
The three sisters are continuing the ministries of Sr. Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, and Sr. Margaret Held of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee. Held and Merrill were murdered Aug. 25, 2016, after working in the area for six years and ministering to those kept poor for some 30 years, mostly in Mississippi. They were nurse practitioners and both worked at the Lexington Medical Clinic.
On Nov. 20, 2017, Kavanaugh, Conley and Walz moved into the house Merrill and Held had shared and started their own work in the area. Their arrival “meant a new beginning, a fresh start. It meant that we were going to survive,” says Sam Sample, a parishioner at St. Thomas Church in Lexington and a friend of all five sisters.
Conley’s students have already completed the Career Ready 101 class at the Lexington Multi-Purpose Complex, which consists of 200 hours of learning how to be employable, such as understanding you have to show up to work, on time, every day.
“There’s a great vocational school where they can become an electrician or be certified to drive a forklift,” Conley, a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, says later. “But they don’t know how to keep a job.”
Today, the subject is credit: credit cards, credit scores, credit card bills. They know there are credit cards and debit cards, but the only difference between them they know about is that a debit card needs a PIN; they don’t know one operates on credit and the other requires money in the bank.
The classes that provide real-world lessons existed before Conley got here, but they were only online, and the students didn’t have much success afterward. Now, they have Conley, a no-nonsense sister with a sharp wit, lots of stories and experience, and a mission to change their lives.
Since so many patients at the Lexington Medical Clinic have some form of diabetes, Walz, a Daughter of Charity, comes in contact with almost all of them.
“It gives you access to people who would never consider talking to a social worker,” Walz says. “There are so many social aspects to diabetes. The doctors say, ‘Lose weight, eat right, blah blah blah,’ and it just overwhelms them. But one-on-one, you can really address the issues, from poverty to transportation to healthy cooking.”
Like many rural areas, Lexington has few grocery stores and little fresh produce. Most people don’t know how to make healthy food choices, she says. They can’t find healthy food to buy and don’t know how to prepare it if they find it.
Walz also helps patients navigate the often-bewildering world of public assistance and nonprofit programs to cover co-pays, find transportation, or get expensive hearing aids.
“The staff told me, ‘They’re calling you the Diabetes Lady,'” Walz said. “I told them, ‘I’ve been called worse.'”
Kavanaugh, a Daughter of Charity, works with Marvin Edwards, a Secular Franciscan, on the prison re-entry program, the Mississippi Association for Returning Citizens (MARC). The program, “Getting Ahead While Getting Out,” is designed to help people get out of poverty.
“They learn a lot of self-evaluation skills — how to evaluate their anger and their personality,” Kavanaugh says. “It’s very strong on studying the financial reality of the country so they can understand how it works and how to get ahead. Before they leave prison, they have to have a plan. Not just a plan for the first 72 hours, but a plan for life.”
Plans often go haywire, and none of the three sisters had ever planned on ministering in rural Mississippi. But it didn’t take long for them to realize they are exactly where God wants them to be.
Though it had been more than a year since Held and Merrill died, the community they served was still reeling when Conley, Kavanaugh and Walz moved in.

“What happened was catastrophic to this town,” says Sample, a real-estate agent who helped the three new sisters rent Held and Merrill’s house.
Held and Merrill had been stabbed to death in their bedrooms in a breaking-and-entering. Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, a town about 18 miles east of Durant, was convicted of two counts of murder and is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole plus 30 years for burglary and stealing one of the sisters’ cars.
Sam Sample says he stood dumbfounded in front of the house, which was surrounded by police tape, when he got the news, unable to process it. When he called his wife, Jamie to tell her, she collapsed. She was so distraught, she was unable to drive.
“Our little world just crashed,” he says.
Cardell Wright, city manager for the City of Durant, says he didn’t know Merrill and Held personally, but it is impossible to escape their reputation.
“They exemplified holiness,” Wright says. “Something that tragic — it shook the community. When something like that happens to people of that caliber, it has a big effect on society.”
Today, the work of Conley, Kavanaugh and Walz is having a big effect, as well.
“When you see them, you know what they stand for. You know what they embody,” Wright says. “They’ve changed my own mentality of what I thought sisters were. I thought they were isolated and stayed off by themselves. The sisters here are invested in our community, and especially our young people. They’ve been very instrumental and one of our biggest donors and supporters.”
For example, Walz helped Wright organize a project for the Mayor’s Youth Council. The teens collected hundreds of pounds of plastic bottle caps, and Walz put them in touch with Green Tree Plastics in Evansville, Indiana, which makes benches out of the material. She then arranged for Wright to stay with the Daughters of Charity in Evansville so he could deliver the plastic and pick up the completed benches.
“We collected 950 pounds of plastic, and the Daughters of Charity donated another 300 pounds to us. They had sisters around the nation sending them in,” Wright says. “They’re unstoppable.”
The project resulted in several benches now installed around Durant, but more importantly, Wright says, it showed the teens how to follow through on a project and accomplish something.
Even more meaningful, though, was when students held a protest against gun violence after the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, and Wright spotted the sisters joining the march.
“Just to see their involvement — they support us,” he says. “It made my day to see one of the sisters come out and march with us. They were right there, talking about protecting our kids.”
Wright marvels at the sisters’ creativity and resourcefulness.
“It’s the connections. It’s about uplifting one another,” he says. “They want the community to progress.”
Though none of the three sisters had lived in Mississippi before, when the Sisters of Charity Federation asked for sisters to consider serving in Durant, they each answered.
Conley, who works with the youth programs in Lexington, had a career in education. Kavanaugh, who works on the re-entry program, spent 17 years serving in Bolivia, four years in the Cook Islands and three years as the pastoral administrator of a parish in tiny Georgetown, South Carolina. Walz, now at the Lexington Medical Clinic, had a career that included 25 years in social work and three years developing health and social service centers for people who live in poverty. She worked for 14 years in rural Gould, Arkansas.
Holmes County, though, is a challenge: 41% of the population lives in poverty, and the median income is $20,330 a year, less than half the median income for Mississippi and the second-lowest in the nation. The national median income is $57,652. The unemployment rate is 12.2%, more than triple the national unemployment rate of 3.7%. Twenty-five percent of those over 25 do not have a high school diploma.
“It’s generational poverty. You have children having children, and it’s the third or fourth generation of that,” Kavanaugh says. “Now, we’re hearing about job opportunities, but people don’t have the skills to get them or keep them.”
There’s a new plastics factory opening soon — a big deal in a county of 17,622 where businesses only employ 1,981 people — but there is no public transportation. Holmes County Central High School ranks 228th out of 233 high schools in Mississippi. Wages in the area are low, so even those with jobs often struggle.
Conley says people living in poverty don’t have stable lives, so they often lose Social Security cards and birth certificates, the documents needed to apply for jobs, job training or almost anything else.
“There’s a lot of discouragement,” Walz says. “There’s so many parts of their lives that are out of their control, whether it’s financial or transportation or housing.”
Walz says the sisters know they won’t change Holmes County overnight, but it’s important they make an effort, and their ministry makes an important statement about the church and women religious.
“It’s our little attempt to be present. The county was traumatized by [the murders]. Durant was traumatized by this event,” she says. “It’s that sense that sisters haven’t given up on them because of this tragedy.”
Walz says people often ask if she is afraid to live in the home where two sisters were killed.
“Not for one second,” she says. “It’s like holy ground.”

(Reprinted with permission by Global Sisters Report, visit GlobalSistersReport.org).