Murdered nuns who ministered to the poor honored at memorial

Last Updated Aug 30, 2016 10:19 AM EDT

DURANT, Miss. - Hundreds of people filled a cathedral in Mississippi’s capital city on Monday to remember two nuns who spent decades helping the needy and were found stabbed to death last week in their home in one of the poorest counties of the state.

An initial court appearance was scheduled to take place hours later for the man charged with two counts of capital murder in the slayings of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, both 68. It was not immediately clear whether Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, would be represented by an attorney during his appearance Monday afternoon in Durant city court.

Sister Paula Merrill, left, and Sister Margaret Held, two nuns who worked as nurses and helped the poor in rural Mississippi, are seen in this image capture from video provided by Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Sister Paula Merrill, left, and Sister Margaret Held, two nuns who worked as nurses and helped the poor in rural Mississippi, are seen in this image capture from video provided by Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth

Capital murder can be punishable by execution or life in prison, and the sisters’ religious orders have issued a joint statement against the death penalty.

Sanders confessed to the killings but gave no reason, said Holmes County Sheriff Willie March, who was briefed by Durant police and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders’ interrogation. Sanders had been living about 15 miles east of the sisters’ Durant home. He has been held at an undisclosed jail since his arrest late Friday.

Merrill and Held worked as nurse practitioners at Lexington Medical Clinic, about 10 miles west of Durant, where they often treated poor and uninsured patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions. Their bodies were found in their home after they failed to show up at work Thursday.

The clinic in Lexington 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 killings shocked people in the small communities where the women committed their lives to helping the poor.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz and more than 20 priests from the Diocese of Jackson celebrated a memorial Mass on Monday at the small but ornate Cathedral of St. Peter in downtown Jackson, about an hour’s drive south of Durant. The front pews were filled by family members and sisters from Held’s and Merrill’s religious orders, the Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee.

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Mourners crowded into the St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, Mississippi on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, to mourn the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, whose bodies were found murdered in their home three days before.

CBS affiliate WJTV

The Rev. Greg Plata, who ministers at the church in Lexington, Mississippi, where Held and Merrill led Bible study, praised them for their lives of service.

“I have often referred to women religious as unsung heroes of the church,” Plata said.  “It is the religious women who are often in the nitty-gritty of life.”

Plata said Held and Merrill could express frustration at times, but never wavered in trying to help people.

The priest said that people in Mississippi - where there are only about 108,000 Catholics in a population of 3 million - sometimes have trouble understanding Catholic concepts like religious life.

“What they do understand and see quite clearly is Christian love in action,” he said. “That’s what the good people saw at the Lexington Medical Clinic, was love in action. We all recognized that love, and you couldn’t help but love them back.”

Plata noted the joint statement against the death penalty released Sunday by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee.

“Justice for a heinous crime demands punishment, but it does not demand revenge,” Plata said.

On Sunday, more than 300 people attended a service at the church in Lexington. About 145 people filled the small white-frame church to capacity, and folding chairs were set up outside for the overflow crowd of about 160.

Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is seen in an undated photo released by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is seen in an undated photo released by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety

Authorities have said Sanders was developed as a person of interest early in the investigation.

Warren Strain, 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.

Officials in Iowa tell CBS News that Sanders also served a three-year term there for theft and more than six years for robbery, getting released in 2011.

Plata said he does not think people at the church knew Sanders.

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, said Dr. Elias Abboud, who oversees the clinic. He said Sanders was not a patient at the clinic.