Offering prayers for slain Mississippi sisters

In late August, the unthinkable happened. Two women religious — nurse practitioners who spent their days caring for the poor of Holmes County, Mississippi — were killed in the home that they shared in Durant, Mississippi.

The abrupt and shocking deaths of Sister Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis for 49 years, and Sister Paula Merrill, a professed member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth for 34 years, have dominated news headlines. Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, confessed to stabbing the two sisters, but gave no reason.

The two communities issued a joint statement asking that the public “move forward together at this time in a prayerful and healing manner, focusing on the lives of Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held, two compassionate, faith-filled women.”

But moving forward might not be so easy. The prosecutor in Mississippi for the case said she has not yet decided whether or not to seek the death penalty for Sanders. In their statement, the religious communities issued a gentle reminder that they do not support capital punishment. “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life,” it read. “For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth. Let us hold everyone involved in prayer.”

District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver said Aug. 29 that, in making her decision, “we are going to consider the heinous nature of the crime and [the families’ and religious orders’] wishes.”

This is an incredibly difficult time for these two religious communities that have found themselves thrust into a spotlight they did not seek and fighting a public battle they did not expect. Yet it is also a time of profound opportunity for witness for these Catholic women, and indeed for ourselves as Church. Instead of an “eye for an eye” battle cry, we are positioned to uphold the legacy of peace, care and love to which these two women devoted their lives. Instead of anger, we encourage prayer. Instead of vengeance, we encourage peace.

As we mention in our Editorial this week (Page 19), we are reminded of Jesus’ words to “stay awake. For for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The killings of Sisters Paula and Margaret were indeed heinous. Their lives were cut much too short. Their work was still unfinished. But they were awake. They were watchful. They knew what had to be done, and they were answering the call. The day and the hour may have come too soon for these two women, but they were prepared because they were doing God’s work.

In addition to reading the headlines and following the politics, let us remember to pray for Sister Paula and Sister Margaret — that they may attain the eternal reward they spent their lives working torward on earth.