BARDSTOWN, Ky. – Eulogized in the church where she took her vows decades ago, a slain nun was remembered Friday for her devotion to the poor and for the Donald Duck impression she used to comfort her young patients in Mississippi.
Sister Paula Merrill was laid to rest in Kentucky as her long-time friend and co-worker, Sister Margaret Held, also mourned Friday in Wisconsin, a week after the nuns were stabbed to death in their home in Durant, Mississippi.
"They needed the people of Mississippi, and the people of Mississippi needed them," said Darlene Nicgorski, a friend of Held's for 50 years.
The Roman Catholic nuns worked as nurse practitioners at a medical clinic in Lexington, Mississippi, one of the poorest spots in the nation. They often treated uninsured patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions. Both were 68.
Along with praise for the lifelong commitment both women showed, mourners also heard a message of forgiveness for the defendant. Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is charged with capital murder, burglary and grand larceny.
"If Paula could meet the person who killed her, she would not focus on what the person had done to her," said Sister Adeline Fehribach, a congregational leader in the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
"Her heart would be broken at what had happened to her friend Margaret, and she may even have to work at getting over her anger at the fact that her patients had lost their one life-line to a better quality of life.
"But as she worked through her pain and anger at the harm done to others, I believe she would look upon the one who caused all the harm and see in that face the suffering Christ as well."
Held's colleagues said it was the social upheaval of the 1960s that drove her to commit to her religious order as a teenager.
Held was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, where one of her eight siblings, Sue Zuern, told hundreds at her funeral that she feels comforted and at peace knowing that her sister has received her heavenly reward.
Friends recalled her hospitality, her bountiful garden and her cooking skills. A loaf of bread she baked the night before she died was placed near the altar, symbolizing God as the bread of life.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said the two nuns had fulfilled their mission, and their lives should serve as an example of service to God.
Merrill's funeral was held at St. Vincent Church on the leafy home campus of her religious order, the Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
A table was filled with photos spanning Merrill's decades as a nun, recalling her hobbies of guitar playing, knitting and riding a motorcycle. She was remembered as a quiet, selfless servant who practiced her religion through daily acts of compassion.
"Her goal in life was to live that faith rather than just talk about it," said her nephew, David Merrill.
Connie Rotters Blake, a lay volunteer for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, said she saw the nuns work to get prescriptions and food vouchers for the needy. Their "simplicity, their generosity, their kindness and their true love for all of God's people" is inspiring, she said.
Merrill did more than listen to patients telling her where they hurt. She listened to their stories of financial struggles, drug addiction and marital fights, her friends recalled.
"She listened when so many others would not listen," Fehribach said. "She listened with love."
After her funeral, mourners walked behind Merrill's casket as it was wheeled to a nearby cemetery for burial.
Ehlke contributed from Milwaukee.