A man suspected in the slayings of two nuns found dead in their Mississippi home confessed to the killings, a sheriff said Saturday, in the latest twist to a crime that has horrified people in the small communities where the women served.
Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, confessed to the horrific murder of two Catholic nuns who were found dead last week in their home in Durant. Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill lived in Holmes County in the northern region of Mississippi where they both worked in a public clinic as nurse practitioners. Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials and the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department took part in Sanders' interrogation.
Sister Margaret was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, while Sister Paula was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. They administered influenza inoculations, insulin injections, and other medical care to the indigent. A vigil is scheduled to be held today at St. Thomas Cathollc parish in Lexington. A funeral Mass will be celebrated in Jackson, the state capital, tomorrow.
Sanders gave no reason for committing the crimes, according to local law enforcement officials. He confessed to killing the two women during an interrogation. Tips from the community, coupled with detective work, revealed him as the prime suspect within hours of the murders. An investigation remains ongoing.
Sanders’ record includes a felony DUI that was committed in 2015, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He had been released from prison and is currently on probation. He was also sentenced and served six years in prison in 1986 for armed robbery in Holmes County.
The community in the largely rural Holmes County are struggling to understand why Sanders may have chosen to kill the nuns. The two women were known for their generosity in providing spiritual direction and healthcare to the poor in their community. According to Dr. Elias Abboud, who oversees the Lexington Clinic in Lexington MS where the nuns worked, Sanders was not a patient at the facility.
Father Greg Plata, a Catholic priest who serves at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington where the nuns led Bible study for years, said that people in the parish did not know Sanders. the priest said: "Forgiveness is at the heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'"
The two nuns’ corpses were found on August 25 after failing to report for work in Lexington, which is approximately from their home in Durant. They were both stabbed to death. According to Mississippi state law officer Lt. Col. Jimmy Jordan, "Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation." Sanders apparently stole the nuns’ vehicle, which was found approximately one mile from the scene of the crimes.
Sanders is currently detained in an undisclosed location pending an appearance in court. Authorities do not know if he has legal representation. It is not known whether the nuns were familiar with Sanders. They currently theorize that he acted alone.
Sanders faces the prospect of the death penalty if convicted on a capital murder charge.
Their stolen car was found abandoned a mile from their home, and there were signs of a break-in, but police have not disclosed a motive for the crimes.
Plata said both nuns' religious communities have asked that people pray for the killer or killers. Asked about people's struggles to forgive, the priest said: "Forgiveness is at the heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'"
The population of Holmes County is 18,000, 44 percent of which live under the poverty line. It is the seventh-poorest county in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. The Lexington Clinic provided about 25 percent of all medical care in Holmes County. The Catholic presence in Mississippi is miniscule. It is divided into two dioceses. The state has the smallest percentage of Catholics of any state in the Union: 4.7 percent. Currently, the total population of Mississippi is about 3 million.
Even so, the history of the Catholic Church in Mississippi and the surrounding region is quite long. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in the 1500s and was accompanied by Catholic friars. Later, in the 1700s, a French settlement erected a parish. When the British seized the area, Catholic worship was surpressed until Spain, which was fighting on the side of the American revolutionists, conquered the area and Catholic worship was again openly practiced. Once Mississippi became part of the United States in the early 1800s, the Catholic Church grew. For more than a century, the Church in Mississippi was administered from Natchez, Mississippi, which had jurisdiction state-wide.