DURANT, MS (AP) — More than 300 people came to a small church Sunday evening to say farewell to two nuns killed in their Mississippi home, even though more than half had to watch the service called vigil for the deceased on a monitor outside.
A funeral Mass for Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, both 68, will be celebrated Monday at the cathedral in Jackson, even as authorities continue to investigate the harrowing crime.
About 145 people filled St. Thomas Church in Lexington, where the nuns led Bible study. A monitor was placed outside where another 160 people sat on folding chairs and others stood to watch the service led by Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Jackson Diocese.
The church’s priest, the Rev. Gregory Plata, spoke about how far-reaching the nuns’ work was, and how much they’ll be missed.
They worked in a clinic for the poor in Lexington, about 10 miles from their home in Durant.
The final hymn, described as Sister Margaret Held’s favorite, was “How Can I Keep from Singing?”
Afterward, nuns from the dead women’s orders, people from other faiths, and members of the community, black and white, embraced the women’s families.
The killing shocked people in the small communities where the women committed their lives to helping the poor.
Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, has been arrested and charged in the stabbings. The county sheriff said Sanders confessed to the killings although many people are struggling to comprehend why anyone would want to take the two women’s lives.
Their bodies were found in their Durant, Mississippi, home after they failed to show up for work Thursday at the health clinic.
Willie March, the sheriff of Holmes County where the killings occurred, said Saturday that police work and tips from the community led police to Sanders. Authorities have said Sanders was developed as a person of interest early in the investigation.
March said he had been briefed by Durant police and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders’ interrogation and was told that Sanders confessed to the killings and gave no reason for the crimes. The sheriff said the investigation is ongoing.
Durant police could not be reached for comment Saturday or Sunday. Warren Strain, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety which includes the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said the organization would neither confirm nor deny that Sanders confessed.
Sanders had a criminal record.
He was convicted last year of a felony DUI, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the MississippiDepartment of Corrections.
He was later released from prison and is currently on probation.
Sanders was also convicted of armed robbery in Holmes County, sentenced in 1986 and served six years, Fisher said.
People who knew the nuns, known for their generosity and commitment to improving health care for the poor, have been grappling with why anyone would want to kill them.
Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees the clinic in Lexington where the nuns worked, said Saturday that Sanders was not a patient there.
Plata said he does not think people at the church knew Sanders.
Authorities said Sanders was being held in an undisclosed detention center pending a court appearance. They have not given any details on why they think Sanders killed the women or whether he knew them but they do say they believe he acted alone.
Strain said he does not know if Sanders has an attorney.
Merrill’s nephew, David Merrill, speaking by telephone from Stoneham, Massachusetts, said Saturday the family was “thankful” Sanders is off the streets.
But the family still has to deal with the loss.
Merrill said he agrees with the idea of forgiveness and that is something his aunt would want for whoever killed her but he’s not sure if he’s capable of completely forgiving.
Merrill said he would not support the death penalty if Sanders were to be convicted but that decision will ultimately be made by the people in Mississippi. The capital murder charge leaves open the possibility Sanders would face the death penalty but that determination would be made by prosecutors later.
The order Held belonged to — School Sisters of St. Francis — thanked law enforcement officers working on the case and thanked people who offered prayers and support in the wake of the sisters’ deaths.
In the poverty-stricken Mississippi county where the two nuns were slain, many people were still mourning their loss.
Jonell Payton, a Durant alderwoman, lives across the street and a few doors down from Held and Merrill’s house. She said the nuns were “the most precious two people” and were known for helping provide medicine for those who couldn’t afford it.
Both women worked at the clinic, where they gave flu shots, dispensed insulin and provided other medical care for children and adults who couldn’t afford it.
The clinic and the nuns’ home in Durant are in Holmes County, population 18,000. With 44 percent of its residents living in poverty, Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the Census Bureau.
The nuns’ death leaves a gaping hole in what was already a strapped health care system.
The clinic provided about 25 percent of all medical care in the county, Abboud said.