JACKSON, Miss. — Authorities said they've found a car missing from the home of the two nuns found stabbed to death in their Mississippi home Thursday morning.
Warren Strain, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said the blue Toyota Corolla was found abandoned on a secluded street barely a mile from where Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill were found dead Thursday.
Strain said police found the car, apparently undamaged, about 6:45 p.m. CT. Strain said the car was being towed to a state crime lab near Jackson for analysis. He said police hadn't determined when the vehicle was abandoned.
Jonell Payton, right, comforts Lisa Dew, outside the Durant home of two slain Catholic nuns Thursday.The nuns worked as nurses at the Lexington Medical Clinic, where Dew was the office manager. Dew and a Durant police officer discovered their bodies inside the house after both nuns did not report for work. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Sister Paula Merrill, a nurse practitioner with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, and Sister Margaret Held, a nurse practitioner with the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, helped treat thousands of patients a year at the Lexington Medical Clinic, regardless of their ability to pay.
“They were earthly angels with hearts of pure gold," said Rosalind McChriston-Williams, a nurse who worked with them at UMMC Holmes County.
The Rev. Greg Plata, who serves as priest at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, praised the pair. “These were the two sweetest sisters you could imagine. It’s so senseless.”
The clinic is expected to remain closed for several days before reopening to patients next week.
“They have touched lives all the way out to Kosciusko,” said Queen Armstrong, a registered nurse with UMMC Holmes County. “Every town, they have touched someone’s life.”
If people needed help, “they would go above and beyond, whether you needed medicine or to keep your lights on,” she said. “That’s how they cared for people. The community has lost two great ladies.”
Dr. Elias Abboud, who owns the clinic, called their deaths “a loss to the community. They were loved by everybody.”
Jamie Sample, a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Lexington, Miss., sits in the shade in Durant, Miss., and shows a smartphone photograph taken last December 2015, of Sisters Paula Merrill, left, and Margaret Held. The two nuns who worked as nurses, and lived in Durant, Miss., were found slain in their home Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. There were signs of a break-in and their vehicle was missing. (Photo: Courtesy Sample family via AP)
Poor areas, such as Holmes County, “need people with compassion,” he said. “For them, it was a passion and a love for people, a love for the needy.”
The nuns raised funds to cover the costs for poor patients and the uninsured, he said. “They would treat them for free.”
The nurse practitioners “would really go the extra mile with patients,” he said. “They would get them free samples and call the drug companies to get them insulin.”
In addition, the nuns regularly distributed books, school supplies and many other items to the needy, according to church officials.
“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 Catholic Diocese of Jackson. “We mourn with the people of Lexington and Durant and we pray for the Sisters of Charity, the School Sisters of St. Francis and the families left behind.”
Both nuns lived together in a house in Durant on Castalian Springs Road, and that is where their bodies were found Thursday. Authorities suspect robbery may have been the motive.
Local police officers leave the Durant home of two slain Catholic nuns who worked as nurses at the Lexington Medical Clinic, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. The clinic office manager and a Durant police officer discovered their bodies inside the house after both nuns did not report for work. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Plata said their bodies were transported to the state Crime Lab, where pathologists are expected to conduct autopsies.
Durant police and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are investigating.
Warren Strain, a spokesman for MBI, said after the nuns failed to show up for work Thursday morning, a co-worker checked on them at 10:30 a.m., discovering their bodies and contacting police.
A native of Massachusetts, Merrill moved in 1981 to Mississippi, where she had lived and worked since.
Nun Paula Merrill, left, was a nurse practitioner in Holmes County. (Photo: From Sisters of Charity video)
She referred to her patients as the “communion of saints” and liked to share the quote: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Sister Audrey Peterson, who worked with Held and Merrill in Mississippi, said the nurse practitioners rented the little house in Durant. “They were outdoor people,” she said. “They had a garden and grew things and shared with their neighbors.”
She praised them as “two very, very special, gentle ladies whose total commitment was being present to the poor. They were working with the absolute poorest of the poor.”
In an interview with the Sisters of Charity, Held talked about treating patients in Holmes County, where more than 40% live in poverty. “What really appalls me is 60% of the children live in poverty.”
Nun Margaret Held was a nurse practitioners in Holmes County. (Photo: From Sisters of Charity video)
That poverty has health consequences, including diabetes and high blood pressure, Merrill explained. “Many people can’t afford the (insurance) premiums. They make minimum wage.”
Many patients come to them from surrounding counties because “we are the only ones that will see them,” she said.
Those in the Catholic community knew the two nurse practitioners as sisters, but patients referred to them as “their doctors,” Armstrong said.
Her voice began to break. “They were loved by the community,” she said. “They were loved by me and my family.”