MILWAUKEE — The night before Sr. Margaret Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, was murdered along with Sr. Paula Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, she baked a loaf of bread to share with her faith community. That bread was placed before the altar of St. Joseph Chapel during her funeral Mass Friday, Sept. 2.
“Margaret and Paula were and are Eucharist to us all,” said Sr. Rosemary Rombalski, life and ministry director of the School Sisters of St. Francis and best friend of Sr. Margaret. “They took the bread of themselves and broke it and shared it with each person they encountered.”
The funeral for Sr. Margaret, attended by more than 500 people, was concelebrated by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Fr. Kevin Slattery, vicar general for the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. Sr. Margaret, from Slinger, and Sr. Paula, from Kentucky, both 68, were murdered Aug. 25 in Durant, Mississippi, where they were serving as nurse practitioners in Holmes County, the state’s poorest county. Police found them dead in the home they shared after coworkers at the health clinic where they worked were concerned when they failed to show up for work.
“Margaret always wanted to be a sister; she wanted to become a sister saint,” said Sr. Rosemary. “Jesus’ love was present in her presence; she was able to look in the face of each individual and see the divine.”
According to an excerpt from Sr. Margaret’s journal, read during the funeral’s words of remembrance, she first wanted to become a sister when she was growing up because all of her elementary school teachers were School Sisters of St. Francis at St. Peter Catholic School in Slinger.
“I admit I was attracted to a romantic notion of being a sister,” wrote Sr. Margaret. “But with mature hindsight, I think I was drawn by intuition that the sisterhood offered more life than I could find in my village of 1,200 people. I wanted to commit to the more.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]Memorial donations to honor Sr. Margaret can be made to the School Sisters of St. Francis, 1515 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, 53215-1994 or by clicking here.[/su_pullquote]
Both sisters worked at the Lexington Medical Clinic and the Durant Primary Care Clinic. The facilities served approximately 25 percent of Holmes County’s population of 18,000 people. Many of their patients are children and the elderly who cannot afford primary medical care.
“It’s really sad in some ways that it took this tragedy to make the work of the sisters visible,” said Franciscan Sr. Judeen Schulte, a professor of nursing at Alverno College and classmate of Sr. Margaret. “It’s a huge loss in medical care and human care.”
The Gospel for Sr. Margaret’s funeral was the same as it was the day of her death: “If the master of the house had known the hour of the night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into” (Mt 24:43).
“Sr. Margaret and Sr. Paula did not view the thief in the same way as the world (views him),” said Archbishop Listecki in his homily. “The world called for vengeance and the sisters called for mercy.”
The School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth oppose the potential sentencing of the death penalty for Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, who has been charged with two counts of capital murder.
“I felt great sadness for him and his family. One has to be concerned about what may have been going on in that person’s life,” said Sr. Mary Diez, president of the School Sisters of St. Francis international congregation. “I think we look with mercy upon that person as Margaret would have. She has called for an end to the death penalty and it has been a stance in our community. It’s for God to make the judgment and Margaret’s family agrees with that position.”
As the friends and family of Sr. Margaret grieved from her loss, they found solace in remembering her life.
“I remember when we played cards, she would walk away whenever she lost and say, ‘Take it away,’” said Christian Held, Sr. Margaret’s 7-year-old nephew.
“Margaret savored life, whether it was a Wisconsin bratwurst, a morsel of blue cheese, a piece of cheesecake or a turtle sundae, she also savored God’s beauty,” said Sue Zuern, Sr. Margaret’s sister. “She found life to be delicious. Margaret was not only my sister by blood but also by faith.”
Sr. Rosemary, who was traveling to see Sr. Margaret in Mississippi the day of the murders, remembers seeing two butterflies fluttering from flower to flower in the garden as the house and yard were being blessed.
“Margaret was a gardener beyond what you could imagine,” said Sr. Rosemary. “All we could say was, ‘All right, Paula and Margaret, we got the message,’ we know again the sign of resurrection and new life and we thank them for being those two butterflies.”
While the School Sisters of St. Francis recover from the tragedy, they look for ways to reconcile the loss in their community.
“One way to begin the healing process is to look in our own lives and ask where can we do more of what Margaret was doing,” said Sr. Mary. “There’s a lot to do in Milwaukee; we need to take up her commitment and do what we can.”
“Every one of us has to say ‘how can we connect with others to help make the world more peaceful,” said Sr. Judeen. “I think that applies everywhere, from Mississippi to our own community; we have to believe that others have good to bring and we have good to bring, too.”
“Margaret, your mission has been accomplished, your goal has been reached,” said Sr. Rosemary. “For you and for that, we love you and will forever hold you in our hearts.”