Those who knew Sister Paula Merrill are certain of this: The Catholic nun who grew up in Stoneham and devoted her life to serving the poor would have prayed for the Mississippi man charged Friday with killing her and her longtime colleague.

“The sisters would have said that we have to pray for this man,” said Jamie Sample, music minister at St. Thomas Church in Lexington, Miss., where Merrill and Sister Margaret Held worshipped. “He needs our prayers.”

Authorities in Mississippi announced Friday that they had charged 46-year-old Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, Miss., with capital murder for the slayings of Merrill and Held, both 68.


The women were found dead Thursday in the home they shared in Durant, Miss., after they failed to report for their jobs as nurse practitioners at a clinic in a nearby community, authorities have said.

Dr. Elias Abboud, the medical director at Lexington Medical Clinic where the women worked, said Sanders was not a patient there. He also was not associated with St. Thomas Church, according to Sample.

“They helped people,” Abboud said in a phone interview.

Merrill and Held had been stabbed, but the medical examiner has not announced a cause of death for the women, said Warren Strain, spokesman for the Bureau of Investigation at the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

The agency said in a statement that Sanders was arrested Friday evening after an “exhaustive interview.”

“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Jordan, director of the Bureau of Investigation.

Sanders is being held in an undisclosed detention center awaiting his initial court appearance, the statement said.

Strain declined to say whether investigators had identified a motive for the killings or disclose further details.

“We just mainly want the community to know that the person who is believed to be responsible is locked up,” Strain said.


Sanders had spent time in prison, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

He was sentenced in February 2015 to serve a year for felony drunken driving, but was paroled in July of that year and released on probation last September, the department said, and he spent six years in prison after a conviction for armed robbery in 1986.

Abboud said a clinic worker who went to the nuns’ home after they did not report to work found prescription drugs on the floor. Merrill’s nephew, David V. Merrill, 37, said some items had been taken.

Under Mississippi law, Sanders could face the death penalty, Strain said.

David V. Merrill said the death penalty would be “the antithesis of what they lived their lives doing.”

“Speaking for myself, I don’t think that would be a fitting punishment,” said Merrill, who lives in Stoneham.

Merrill said his mother, Rosemarie, and uncle, John Vincent Merrill Jr., planned to travel to Mississippi Saturday to attend a wake and funeral Mass for his aunt.

A wake for Merrill and Held is scheduled for Sunday at St. Thomas Church, according to the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. A funeral Mass is set for Monday morning at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson, Miss., according to the diocese.

Merrill is to be buried in Kentucky following services organized by her order, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, her nephew said. He said her relatives in Stoneham are considering holding a memorial service at a later date.


Diane Curtis, a spokeswoman for the order, said arrangements for Merrill’s funeral in Kentucky were incomplete. She said a fund has been established in Merrill’s memory.

“We will use the money to work with the poor as Paula did,” Curtis said. “Nothing prepares you for this. We speak of risking our lives to carry out our ministry in solidarity with the people, and we find ourselves living that out.”

David Merrill said he is comforted to know that his aunt and Held were together in their final moments. Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, and Merrill had worked together for about three decades, he said.

“They were a good team. They were both very driven,” he said. “There was comfort in that they made their arrival in the great beyond together.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.