ST. FRANCIS — Sr. Margaret Held, a School Sister of St. Francis from Slinger, and Sr. Paula Merill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, both 68, were found slain in their home in Durant, Mississippi on Aug. 25.

“We have lost two bright stars,” said Audrey Peterson, a lay associate of the School Sisters of St. Francis and close friend of both sisters who lives at Clement Manor, Greenfield. “They were very dedicated and supportive to the poor community; their deaths are tragic to everyone who knew them.”

Sr. Margaret Held, 68, left, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, and Sr. Paula Merrill, 68, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, are pictured in undated photos. (CNS photo/School Sisters of St. Francis and Sisters of Charity of Nazareth)

Sr. Margaret Held, 68, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, is pictured in an undated photo. (Submitted photo courtesy School Sisters of St. Francis)

The sisters served as nurse practitioners at the Lexington Medical Clinic and the Durant Primary Care Clinic in Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the state. The clinics serve approximately 25 percent of the county that has a population of 18,000. Many of their patients are children and elderly who are African American and cannot afford primary medical care.

“I believe at this time I am helping overcome racial and class differences by providing access to quality health care and education, while also promoting reform of the present health care system,” Sr. Margaret wrote in a 2011 article for the School Sisters of St. Francis congregational magazine, Alive.

“They were well loved by the community for the invaluable service they provided,” said Fr. Greg Plata, pastor of St. Francis Parish, which the two nuns attended in Greenwood, Mississippi. “Both sisters treated everyone with the dignity of being a child of God.”

Fr. Plata also noted the sisters were excellent examples of the Catholic Church for the state of Mississippi, which has a 3 percent Catholic population.

“All that knew them are grieving and in shock, especially after learning of their deaths in the news,” said Fr. Plata.

Sr. Margaret was born in 1948 and attended St. Peter Catholic School in Slinger; upon graduation, she entered the School Sisters of St. Francis in 1962. She was received into the community in 1967 and made her first profession in 1970. She graduated from Alverno College, and from 1972 to 1976 she taught anthropology and sociology at St. Joseph High School (now St. Joseph Catholic Academy) in Kenosha. In 1978 she professed perpetual vows.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Funeral service information
Visitation for Sr. Margaret Held will take place in St. Joseph Chapel at 
St. Joseph Center, 1501 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, on Friday, Sept. 2, 
at 8:30 a.m., followed by a wake service at 9:30 a.m., in the same location. A Mass of Christian Burial celebrated by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki will follow at 11 a.m. Memorials in Sr. Margaret’s honor can be made to the School Sisters of 
St. Francis, 1515 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, WI 53215. [/su_pullquote]

In a statement from St. Joseph Catholic Academy, School Sister of St. Francis Sylvia Leonardi, campus minister and theology teacher, said: “Sr. Margie, as we called her, always had a smile on her face. She was a superb, generous, highly intelligent woman always willing to go out of her way to be of service to others, especially those less fortunate. Sr. Margie truly lived her Franciscan Ministry, wholly dedicated to serving the poor with kindness and compassion. Recognizing and honoring the dignity of all people, especially through her extensive work in Mississippi, Sr. Margie personified the compassionate Franciscan woman, embodying the spirit of St. Francis in all that she did. Sr. Margie was a true leader and role model who will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”

Sr. Margaret worked for five years as a social worker in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for the C.A.D.E.T. Health Center. She received a nursing degree from Creighton University and served as a community health nurse for the Visiting Nurse Association in Omaha, Nebraska from 1981 to 1983.

She received a master’s degree from Mississippi University for Women in Columbus as a nurse practitioner, and worked for the Department of Health in Tupelo and Deporres Health Center. Sr. Margaret served in Mississippi for the rest her life through various roles as a social worker, school nurse, public health nurse and family nurse practitioner.

She would visit Wisconsin a few times a year to see family and attend events, and never expressed any fear or concern for her safety, according to Michael O’Loughlin, spokesman for the School Sisters of St. Francis.

“The times I met Sr. Held, I was impressed with her attention to the people, especially the poor,” said Fr. Rick Stoffel, pastor of St. Peter Parish, Slinger. “She always stopped to say hello and had a down-to-earth and loving personality.”

The School Sisters of St. Francis have ministered in Mississippi for 76 years. In the same 2011 magazine article from Alive, Sr. Margaret recounted, “I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty. Impressionable and idealistic, I was committed to ending racism and poverty. The invitation to come to Mississippi provided me with the setting in which I hoped to make a difference with my life. I came here because of a dream and a cause, but I stayed because of the people. I hoped to do something heroic, but instead I do the daily, diligent work. I have learned that effecting change is not a solitary effort but a life-long, faith-filled commitment with other sisters who have gone before and with me in this service.”

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, has been charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with the killings, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety said early Saturday.

“When an act of violence is perpetrated on a sister who has dedicated her life to performing good works and serving the community in the name of Jesus, that act of violence is magnified in a multitude of ways,” said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in an Aug. 25 statement. “The perpetrator of the crime robbed not only the School Sisters of St. Francis, but also the entire church of a woman whose life was spent in service.”

In a joint statement by the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the two communities said, “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth. Let us hold everyone involved in prayer.”

Sr. Margaret was preceded in death by her parents, Jerome and Dolores Held, and sister Mary Reidell. She is survived by her sisters and brothers: Beth (John) Bacik, brother-in-law Edward Reidell, Jean (Andy) Knoll, Sue (Joe) Zuern, Jim (Mary) Held, Annette (Peter) Schulz, and Tony (Karen) Held.

“When Sr. Margaret first came to our mission, she really made a name for herself,” said Peterson who was the program coordinator for Sacred Heart in Holly Springs. “Both women were very religious and dedicated to the world health ministry. Every one got to know them and they will be really missed.”