A memorial Mass will be held Monday for two 68-year-old nuns who were killed in their Mississippi home, even as authorities continue to investigate the stabbing. A man from about 15 miles away has confessed without giving a reason, according to the sheriff.
The Mass will be at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson, about an hour’s drive from Durant, the town of 2,500 where Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill lived until last week.
They both worked at a health clinic for the poor in nearby Lexington, where they also led Bible study at a church. And more than 300 people came Sunday to St. Thomas Church to say farewell.
About 145 people filled the church to capacity, and there was an overflow crowd outside, where 160 folding chairs were set up and still people had to stand to watch on a monitor as Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Jackson Diocese led the service.
The church’s priest, the Rev. Gregory Plata, spoke about how far-reaching the nuns’ work was, and how much they’ll be missed.
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 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 after they failed to show up for work Thursday at the clinic.
Authorities have said Sanders was developed as a person of interest early in the investigation.
Holmes County Sheriff Willie March said he was 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 but gave no reason.
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 was on probation after a prison term for a felony DUI conviction last year, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
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.
Sanders was not a patient at the clinic, said Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees it.
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.
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.