By JEFF AMY
DURANT, Miss. — The two nuns who were killed in Mississippi were by all accounts some of the most friendly, helpful people in town, cooking and caring for anyone in their poor community — making their slayings all the more puzzling.
Their car was found abandoned a mile away from their home, and there were signs of a break-in, but police haven’t released any leads or suspects in the investigation.
The women, both 68 and nurse practitioners, were found dead Thursday morning when they didn’t report to work at the nearby clinic where they provided flu shots, insulin and other medical care for children and adults who couldn’t afford it.
They were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill.
Dr. Elias Abboud, who worked with the sisters for years and helped build the Lexington Medical Clinic, said he’s not sure what will happen to the facility in light of their deaths.
“I think the community is going to be different after this. You need somebody with that passion to love the people and work in the underserved area,” Abboud said.
“For somebody to come and do this horrible act, we are all shocked,” he added.
Authorities did not release a cause of death, but the Rev. Greg Plata said police told him the nuns were stabbed. Autopsies were to be done Friday.
“They were two of the sweetest, most gentle women you can imagine. Their vocation was helping the poor,” said Plata, who oversees a 35-member Catholic church the sisters attended.
Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said there were signs of a break-in at the home in Durant and the nuns’ car was taken.
The abandoned Toyota Corolla was found undamaged late Thursday, barely a mile from the home and authorities were looking for clues inside it.
Abboud said the clinic provided about 25 percent of all the medical care in the county, which has a population of about 18,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for July 2015.
The two nuns provided almost all the care at the clinic and cultivated relationships with drug company representatives, who often left extra free samples, according to clinic manager Lisa Dew.
“I think their absence is going to be felt for a long, long time. Holmes County, it’s one of the poorest in the state,” Dew said. “There’s a lot of people here who depended on them for their care and their medicines. It’s going to be rough.”
Authorities didn’t release a motive and it wasn’t clear if the nuns’ religious work had anything to do with the slayings.
Police Chief John Haynes said officers were canvassing the area and trying to look at video from surveillance cameras in town to see if they spot anything unusual.
The Catholic community in Mississippi is relatively small. Of nearly 3 million people, the diocese said there are about 108,000 Catholics.
Held had been a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee for 49 years “and lived her ministry caring for and healing the poor,” a statement from the order said.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said whoever killed Held “robbed not only the School Sisters of St. Francis, but also the entire Church of a woman whose life was spent in service.”
Merrill had worked in Mississippi for more than 30 years, according to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky. She was from Massachusetts and joined the order in 1979.
Two years later, she moved south and found her calling in the Mississippi Delta community, according to a 2010 article in The Journey, a publication by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
During an early part of her career, she helped bring a tuberculosis outbreak under control in the region, Dew said.
Merrill saw children and adults, and helped in other ways.
“We do more social work than medicine sometimes,” Merrill told The Journey. “Sometimes patients are looking for a counselor.”
After Hurricane Katrina left much of the town without power for weeks in 2005, the sisters allowed people to come to their house to cook because they had a gas stove, neighbor Patricia Wyatt-Weatherly said.
They were skilled in stretching resources, and routinely produced amazing dishes out of what seemed like a very small garden at their home, said Sam Sample, lay leader of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, where the sisters were members. The small congregation called off its weekly Bible study and meal Thursday night.
“They would do anything for anybody. Folks in Holmes County don’t realize the impact it will have without them being here,” Sample said.