September 2, 2016


Sisters’ ministry reflected God’s love to rural poor

We have read the stories about a priest being killed and women religious being murdered overseas, but this news stunned and shocked us, especially since it hit close to home.

This time, we are left searching for answers because of the senseless deaths of two religious sisters who were ministering to the poorest of the poor in rural Mississippi, performing an outreach they truly loved.

Sister Margaret Held, 68, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, and Sister Paula Merrill, 68, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, were found stabbed to death on Aug. 25 in their Durant, Miss., home.

Although news reports said a 46-year-old Mississippi man has confessed to the crimes, we will never be able to comprehend what led him to take the lives of these two missionary sisters who brought the light of Christ to so many.

They both worked at a health clinic for the poor in nearby Lexington, where they also led Bible study at a church.

The clinic and the sisters’ home in Durant are in Holmes County, whose population is 18,000. With 44 percent of its residents living in poverty, Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The nuns’ death leaves a gaping hole in what was already a strapped health care system, a local medical official said.

The clinic provides about 25 percent of all medical care in the county, said Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees the clinic in Lexington where the sisters worked.

People who knew the sisters, known for their generosity and commitment to improving health care for the poor, have been grappling with why anyone would want to kill them.

As people who value and are thankful for the ministry provided by missionaries like these two religious sisters, we, too, struggle with understanding this senseless loss.

“These were just two wonderful, faith-filled women who just brought so much life to this poor little section of Mississippi,” said Franciscan Father Greg Plata, sacramental administrator of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lexington, where the sisters participated in parish life. “They and so many of the sisters who have come down here throughout the years are the unsung heroes.

“They just bring the light of Christ to this area here. Both were extremely loved by the people in the area.”

Dr. Abboud added that the deaths are “a loss to the community. They were loved by everybody.”

“Love” is also an appropriate word to describe how the sisters felt about their work in Mississippi.

A video about Sister Paula’s ministry recently posted on her community’s website described her ministry in Holmes County, where 62 percent of the children live in poverty.

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

Sister Margaret 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 before returning to Mississippi that year. She became a nurse practitioner in 1994, serving in Tupelo, Marks and Lexington.

Pope Francis called the murder of 85-year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel in July while celebrating Mass in France “absurd violence,” and said four Missionaries of Charity murdered in March in Yemen were “the martyrs of today.” Sister Paula’s and Sister Margaret’s outreach performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and their senseless deaths, unfortunately, help us witness firsthand the dangers of missionary life in America today.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that the sisters “leave a legacy of dedication to their consecrated life and deep compassion for those they served.”

We echo the words of Archbishop Kurtz, who asked the faithful to “join me in praying for the repose of the souls of Sister Paula and Sister Margaret, and for their families and religious communities. May they rest in peace.”

—Mike Krokos

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