Two nuns who worked as nurses and helped the poor in rural Mississippi were found slain in their home, perhaps victims of a break-in and vehicle theft, officials said on Thursday.
Authorities would not say if they have a suspect, but disclosed that they had recovered a car missing from the home and were towing it to a crime lab for analysis.
They also did not release a cause of death, but the Reverend Greg Plata said police told him the sisters were stabbed.
The nuns were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, both 68. Their bodies were taken to a state crime lab for autopsies.
The women, both nurse practitioners, were found on Thursday morning when they did not report to work at a nearby clinic, where they provided flu shots, insulin and other medical care for children and adults who could not afford it.
“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, Mississippi, said there were signs of a break-in at the home and the nuns’ vehicle was missing.
Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said later that the blue Toyota Corolla was found abandoned on Thursday evening on a secluded street about 1km from the home, the vehicle apparently undamaged.
He said police have not determined when the car was abandoned and it was being towed to the state crime lab near Jackson.
Authorities did not release a motive and it was not clear if the nuns’ religious work had anything to do with the slayings.
Police Chief John Haynes said officers are checking video from surveillance cameras in town to see if they spot anything unusual.
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 to the 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.
“We do more social work than medicine sometimes,” Merrill told The Journey. “Sometimes patients are looking for a counselor.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 much of the town was without power for weeks, the sisters allowed people over to their house to cook because they had a gas stove.
The small congregation at St Thomas typically gathered on Thursday nights for Bible study and a meal. Held was a member of the School Sisters of St Francis based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and its US Province Leadership team issued a statement that members were “deeply shocked and grieved” by the killings.
They said Held had 49 years with the order and devoted herself to “living her ministry caring for and healing the poor.”
Doctor Elias Abboud worked with the sisters for years and agreed to help build the Lexington clinic because “you could feel their passion about serving the people, helping the poor. They loved it.”
Abboud estimated that the clinic provided about 25 percent of all the medical care in the county, which has a population of about 18,000, according to US Census Bureau estimates for July this year.
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