They were found stabbed in a residence in Durant, north of Jackson, Holmes County Coroner Dexter Howard said.
A car that belonged to one of the victims was found on an abandoned road less than a mile from the home, Assistant Police Chief James Lee said.
The blue Toyota Corolla was transferred to the crime for analysis.
The Catholic Diocese of Jackson said the two nuns didn’t show up Thursday morning at a clinic they operate in Lexington, about 13 miles away.
Clinic workers called police when the pair didn’t arrive, said Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. Authorities arrived at the home, saw evidence of a break-in and found two bodies, she said. Officials believe a car is missing.
Howard said the bodies were sent to the state crime lab, which will do the autopsies.
The Rev. Greg Plata, the priest at St. Thomas Catholic Church where the sisters attended Mass, said the nuns were “Just good women, women of prayer. They were outgoing, loving, caring.”
The sisters were much loved by the doctors and residents in the area, he said. They were the primary caregivers at the clinic, he added.
Many of Plata’s 30 or so parishioners came to the church Thursday night.
“We basically cried and told our stories about them and talked about how important they were to us,” he said.
The Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth said the community is in prayer.
“SCN President Susan Gatz asks that all ‘pray in gratitude for the precious lives of Sisters Paula and Margaret … they served the poor so well. Because we are gospel women, please also pray for the perpetrators.”
Merrill, who Plata said he believes was 58, was a nurse practitioner in Mississippi for more than 30 years and had been at the Lexington Medical Clinic since 2010. According to the Sisters of Charity website, the clinic saw 8,000 patients in 2014, many of whom are poor and uninsured.
Held, 68, was also a nurse practitioner, who moved to Mississippi in 1983. She had been a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for 49 years. She moved to Durant in 2003, officials said.
In 2011 she told the School Sisters publication “Alive” that she moved to Mississippi because she was committed to erasing racism and poverty.
“I came here because of a dream and a cause,” she said, “but I stayed because of the people.”
In a video posted on the SCN website, Merrill talked about providing health care in one of the poorest counties in Mississippi. The poverty rate in Holmes County is 44%, and the median household income among the 18,000 residents is about $21,400.
“Many people have no health insurance because they can’t afford the premiums,” she says. “They make minimum wage.”
Some of the people come from other counties.
“We’re the only people that will see them,” she adds.
The Clarion Ledger of Jackson reported that Dr. Elias Abboud, the clinic owner, said the sisters raised money to help care for the poor.
“They would treat them for free,” he said.
The top church official in the area praised their years of helping others.
“These sisters have spent years of dedicated service here in Mississippi. They absolutely loved the people in their community,” said Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Jackson Diocese.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the sisters had made the community a better place to live and lamented their deaths.
“Unbridled love and care for mankind has been met with unparalleled savagery,” he said.