“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” Lt. Col. Jimmy Jordan, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said in the statement. “With the cooperation of the Durant and Kosciusko Police Departments, Holmes County Sheriff’s Department and the Attorney General Office this heinous crime has been resolved.”
Sanders is being held in a detention center while he awaits his first court appearance, police said.
Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held were known and beloved for their service to the poor and the needy, those close to the women said.
The nuns’ bodies were discovered by a Durant police officer performing a wellness check after they didn’t show up for work in the morning, Assistant Police Chief James Lee told The Washington Post. Durant is a small, rural town, about 60 miles north of the capital, Jackson. On Friday morning, a dispatcher at the Durant police station said all of the department’s officers were working the scene of the crime.
On Thursday, police said there was evidence of a break-in at the home the nuns shared and that a blue Toyota Corolla that belonged to them was missing, the Associated Press reported. Later that evening, the missing Corolla was discovered abandoned on a street less than a mile from where the nuns were found dead, the AP reported.
The Catholic Diocese of Jackson expressed grief over “the murder of two sisters in our diocese.”
“These were the two sweetest sisters you could imagine,” the Rev. Greg Plata, who worked with Merrill and Held, said in the diocese’s statement. “It’s so senseless.”
Merrill and Held were part of a group of 20 parishioners who met regularly for worship at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lexington, Miss., about 10 miles west of Durant. The sisters “were family to me,” said Jamie Sample, a high school teacher and fellow parishioner. Over the past 15 years, they spent many holidays together, Sample told The Post on Friday.
“I just keep praying that I can do them justice,” she said. “They always made you feel like you were the most important person they had ever come in contact with.”
Sample said the two nuns lived in a tidy home on Castalian Springs Road, where they tended to an herb garden and blueberry bushes in their back yard. Both were avid bakers, and they frequently offered homemade muffins or poppy cakes as a thank you to Sample’s husband, who would help the nuns with household repairs. Held, in particular, liked to experiment with gourmet recipes to bring to their church’s standing Thursday potluck and Bible study, Sample said.
Sample wept several times while recalling her memories of the nuns. “I wish I could just say who they were, how gentle and peaceful and loving,” she said.
It was Sample’s husband who broke the horrific news to her, calling her Thursday while she was teaching. “Jamie, I’m at the nuns’ house; they said they’ve been murdered,” she remembered him telling her. “My knees buckled,” Sample said. “I just lost it at school.”
Thursday night, the rest of the St. Thomas parishioners gathered at the church in Lexington in shock. There was no Bible study, no potluck. “We just cried and grieved and loved on one another,” Sample said, noting that Plata, the priest, “had the most beautiful prayer.”
“They are probably two of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known in my life,” she added. “All they lived to do was live for others, give to others.”
Both Merrill and Held were nurse practitioners who worked with the Lexington Medical Clinic, where they helped treat thousands of patients a year regardless of their ability to pay, the Clarion-Ledger reported. The clinic’s owner, Elias Abboud, told the newspaper that the nuns had a passion for the people of Holmes County, one of the poorest areas of Mississippi.
“They would treat them for free. They would get them free samples and call the drug companies to get them insulin,” Abboud told the newspaper. “For them, it was a passion and a love for people, a love for the needy.” A person who answered the Lexington Medical Clinic’s phone Friday said the clinic is closed until Monday because of the double slaying.
The paper also reported that the nuns distributed books, school supplies and other items to the needy, according to church officials.
In the weeks after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when many in the town were without power, the sisters allowed people over to their house to cook because they had a gas stove when most had electric stoves, the nuns’ next-door neighbor, Patricia Wyatt-Weatherly, told the AP.
Merrill was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, while Held was part of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, according to the AP. A profile of Merrill on the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth website said she was originally from Massachusetts but had served in health-care ministry in Mississippi for more than 30 years.
In a video that accompanied the profile, Merrill and Held talked about their work ministering to the poor. They played down their own importance, saying it was their patients who had served them more. “They know when you’re genuine. I know when I have connected with them,” Held said in the video. “I have been so edified by the faith of the people that I care for. They challenge me, inspire me.”
Merrill agreed. “We make a difference in people’s lives, and we never know what that difference is,” she said. “We do, hopefully, what we’re called to do, where we are.”
Sample’s husband, Sam, said the nuns’ death is devastating for more than just those who knew them well. “It might take it six months, might take six years, for the community to realize the effects of this,” he said. “But it will be significant, from a medical standpoint, from a compassion standpoint.”
In a statement, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann praised the women for their faithful and tireless work to make their community a better place to live. “Unbridled love and care for mankind has been met with unparalleled savagery,” Hosemann said. “We hope justice will be swiftly served.”