Paula Julie Merrill was born on October 17, 1947 in Stoneham, Massachusetts to John Vincent Merrill and to Rose Marie Wolfert Merrill, both from South Boston. Paula was the youngest of three children. John Vincent and Rosemarie, her older siblings, say with a twinkle in their eyes, that she was “queen” in the family and well-spoiled with love and attention. This, however, didn’t “get her off the hook” when her “creative energy” got the better of her!
Paula was baptized on November 2, 1947 in St. Patrick Church in Stoneham, where she also made her First Communion on May 8, 1955 and was confirmed on April 17, 1959.
Paula was an average student at St. Patrick School, working very hard and achieving good grades, and was dedicated to whatever she was doing. For high school, she attended Our Lady of Nazareth Academy (OLN) in Wakefield, Massachusetts maintaining perfect attendance – even after a broken arm walking home after class. Paula was quiet and shy, but loved to be with her family and friends. She was deliberate in making decisions and could be pretty stubborn at times!
After graduating from OLN in 1965, Paula came to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth novitiate along with two of her OLN classmates, making it a novitiate class of forty-one young women. She was kind, generous, helpful and had a clever wit when someone needed a laugh, endearing her to all.
In his letter recommending Paula for the novitiate, her pastor, Right Reverend John S. Sexton wrote; “As pastor here for twenty years, I have known Paula Merrill for most of her life. I am thoroughly familiar with her family background. Paula reflects the qualities of her deceased father and of her living mother. Of Paula as of them, I can say she is one of our finest.”
“I am delighted that Paula has this interest. Without reservation, I describe Paula as richly deserving to test whether this is the work God wants her to perform. It is my belief that the answer is ‘yes’.”
Sister Mary Pauletta Kane was novice director when Paula came to the novitiate the first time. She remembers Paula as being very young and very timid in social situations. Yet Paula never complained even though Mary Pauletta knew that she was suffering. Paula eventually withdrew from the novitiate, returned home to Stoneham, MA and became a registered nurse. In the meantime, Mary Pauletta’s mother was admitted to a nursing home also in Massachusetts. When Mary Pauletta visited her mother there, she was happily surprised to find that Paula was her nurse. In those days, nursing homes weren’t so closely inspected, yet Paula took such loving good care of Pauletta’s mother and all the other residents, that she was highly impressed and most grateful. That is when the two of them became good friends. Later, Paula always came to visit Mary Pauletta whenever she’d come to Nazareth from her missions.
In 1968 SCN leadership believed that Paula needed more time outside SCN life for maturing and growth. She left the novitiate and returned to her home in Stoneham. She found a job, saved her money, bought a car and entered nurse’s training. She was also able to do some traveling with her family during vacation times: to Alaska, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and to several places in the States. She visited other family members, friends and places of interest. Paula loved nursing and her patients trusted her. She would often pick up patients from the Youville Chronic Care Hospital where she worked and take them to Mass with her on the weekends.
During this time, Paula kept in touch with many SCNs in the area. She discerned about re-entering the SCN Community, which she did on May 30, 1979. As a second year novice she was missioned in Holly Springs, Mississippi and was asked to write of her experiences there for the September, 1982 issue of the SCNews. In her own words she said,
“What is it like living in Holly Springs, Mississippi? What have you been doing there? These are two questions I have been asked during this year on my occasional visits back to Nazareth.”
“Being from Massachusetts, I have found living in Holly Springs a slightly different experience. The pace of life is much slower and calmer. People take time to enjoy life in very simple ways, such as taking walks and celebrating life together. There have been other things different for me too, such as finding a snake in my room when I came home from work one day or the time we had a whole week off from school because we had five inches of snow.”
“This is the first time in recent years that a second year novice has been in ministry in one place for a whole year. My ministry with CADET (Christian Aided Development through Extraordinary Training) Health Care Services has been to establish an outreach program to the elderly and handicapped. When I started back in September, I knew there was a great need for services to the elderly, but didn’t know what I had to do to get things started. With the help of Sister Joseph Beatrice Eyl, SCN for public relations, and much support and encouragement from her and from Sister Frances Rita Ballard, SCN the outreach program began.
“My first patient was referred to me by a doctor in town. I was so excited when he called that I went to see the patient right away – by bicycle. The outreach program has continued to grow and now I have forty people that I visit in their homes. I visit some of these folks twice a week, some weekly and some every two weeks. These visits include various things, such as blood pressure checks, instructions about their diet and medication, occasional grocery shopping, transportation to doctor appointments and being present to families at the time of death of a family member.”
“The people to whom I minister have ministered to me by the witness of their lives. Most of them have incomes below the poverty level. They live in shacks without running water. They are a simple, beautiful people who know that who they are as persons is much more important than what they have, what they do or have done in their lives. Many of them live in the present moment and take whatever comes as the will of God. These people have taught me much about life, living and love.”
Paula was a gentle, quiet person who seemed to be well qualified professionally as well as personality-wise to be friends with those whom she visited. She also assisted in ministering to the school children, with Medicaid or whatever had to be done at the time. She was an asset to the Health Services as well as to the community in which she lived.
Paula would be returning to Holly Springs the following July after spending two months and a half in prayer and preparation for making her first vows on June 26, 1982, followed by a visit with her family in Massachusetts.
Later Paula’s sister, Rosemarie, remarked that nursing and religious life ran in the family. They had a cousin who was a Franciscan, a great uncle who was a Xaverian Brother, an aunt who was in the Maryknoll Community for several years and afterwards became a nurse as did two of her cousins and a niece.
Paula’s first mission was a return to Holly Springs. After three and a half years with the CADET Health Services, sponsored by the Sacred Heart Southern Missions and federal grants, Paula applied for a position in the State’s Public Health Department and was accepted with gratitude. Her reputation as an excellent, skilled and devoted nurse was public knowledge. Paula’s opportunities in this agency were mainly open to providing healthcare, education and making contacts with the very poor with whom she loved to work. It was while working here that she met Sister Margaret Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, who had just come to Holly Springs. She too, was a nurse practitioner, partnering with Paula in the Public Health field and becoming very good friends.
During these years Paula worked full time and studied part time toward securing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. In August of 1987, Paula retired from the Public Health Agency to study full time at Mississippi State University for Women in Columbus, MS. Besides giving Paula a grand “going away party”, the staff asked her to be present for home health calls when possible, hoping to keep her on the staff. She graduated with honors the following May.
From Holly Springs, Paula and Margaret moved to Lafayette County working at the Health Department in Oxford. Eventually the two moved to Marks, MS where they worked at the DePorres Health Clinic and its outreach for several years. Their next move was to the University Medical College Clinic in Lexington, MS until the clinic was downsized and they went to work for Dr. Abboud in his clinic in Lexington. Paula and Margaret worked untold hours at the clinic and among the people of Holmes County where the majority lived below the poverty level. There is a moving account of Sister Paula’s ministry to an elderly patient in a 2016 issue of The Journey. (To read the full Journey article, click here.)
“Willie Paul, a local farm worker has known Paula for twelve years. He started out as her patient and over the years, the two have become friends. Paula has helped him become a healthier person. He says he’s not sure he’d still be alive today without Paula’s advice and encouragement. ‘She’s great. She’s an honest person. I can’t look for a better doctor. I’m telling you the truth. My friends would say the same thing.’”
Paula and Margaret lived in the small town of Durant, about ten miles from the Lexington Clinic. The home they shared was purchased for them by Paula’s sister, Rosemarie. Paula was the outdoors person delighting in mowing the grass, planting the garden and fixing anything that was broken. Margaret loved to cook, clean and keep the house comfortable and cozy. They both were very active in the life of the church in Lexington. They planned the liturgies, led the singing, often gave the homilies, and participated in many other activities with the people.
There is a beautiful example of one of Paula’s homilies you may want to read at the link at the end of the story.
Another writing to share is a most amazing, almost prophetic reflection Paula wrote on our Sisters who gave their lives doing what was needed in their time – ordinary things – the Yellow Fever Martyrs of Yazoo City. That may also be found at the close of this story.
One of Paula’s treasured memories was that of winning the SCN Congregation lottery in 2011, along with Sister Elaine McCarron and two SCNs from India, to go to France on a pilgrimage to all the places made sacred by St. Vincent de Paul’s life and ministry.
The generous lives of Paula and Margaret would come to a painful and unbelievable end. On the afternoon of August 25, 2016 Sister Susan Gatz, SCN President, and former classmate of Paula, called Sisters to the chapel with this terrible news: “Sisters, we have very sad news to report. We have been informed that our Sister Paula Merrill, was found dead this morning in their home in Durant, MS. Police found both her and Franciscan Sister Margaret Held (SSSF) dead after being called by personnel at the medical center where they ministered. The two had not come to work that morning. We have very little information at this time. We have spoken to the parish priest, the chief of police and the coroner’s office to confirm the deaths of Sisters Paula and Margaret.”
“We ask that we hold all in prayer. Should you be contacted by a member of the media, please have them call Diane Curtis or Dana Hinton so that they can contact the communications department.”
“SCN Leadership will keep the community informed. Pray for the precious lives of Paula and Margaret. They served the poor so well. Because we are gospel women, pray for the perpetrators of this crime as well. Please keep Sisters Paula and Margaret’s family members and Margaret’s community in your prayers, as well as those who work at the clinic, and those involved in the investigation.”
The SCN community was in shock and mourning as was the School Sisters of St. Francis community, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Local and national media descended upon the SCN community to learn more of the terrible crime that preceded their deaths. There were numerous articles from news media around the United States. Just two of those news articles can be found at the link at the close of this story.
The very next day, August 26, 2016, police arrested Rodney Earl Sanders who confessed to the murder and was held in prison without bond. In the Holmes County Court hearing in June, 2017, he pleaded not guilty. He was indicted by a grand jury and faced two counts of capital murder. His trial was scheduled for February 12, 2018. Paula’s and Margaret’s families and religious communities do not want the death penalty which, at present, is the punishment for capital murder in Mississippi. The court promised to take all in consideration as it seeks justice for the victims and all concerned in this dreadful tragedy.
Following the deaths of Margaret and Paula, there was a touching memorial service at St. Thomas Church in Lexington, MS, their home parish, led by Reverend Gregory Plata, OFM pastor. Attending were the local community, SCNs, SSSFs, family, friends and colleagues. A measure of the regard there for these two women was a youth group from a local Protestant church offering to help with the preparation of the tent, chairs, etc. for the overflow crowd.
The next day there was a memorial Mass for them presided over by Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz in the Cathedral in Jackson, MS. The SCNs who were able to attend the Mass remember an elderly gentleman who struggled with a police officer’s help to come in to the church and take a place near the front. He was still wearing a hospital arm band, Paula and Margaret would have loved that he was there. Paula’s body was brought to Nazareth to be honored by a wake and memorial Mass there . The outpouring of grief and shock was expected. A memorial wake and Mass took place in Milwaukee where the SSSF community honored Margaret. The two grieving communities knew their loss and that of the poor under-served of Holmes County, MS..
Some of the mysterious circumstances of this horrible tragedy unraveled during the following days and weeks and so did the outpouring of love, grief and tender support from friends and total strangers from all across the U.S. and beyond. Here are but a few tokens from the scores treasured in our SCN Archives: Martha Walsh, SCN, reflected, “I would greet Paula and her sister, Rosemarie with the handshake of peace each Saturday night at the Boston Paulist Center. One Saturday night she added, ‘I’m entering your community’. Later on when I was missioned in Wakefield, Rosemarie and Paula’s nephew, baby David with his toy duck, continued our Saturday night schedule.”
“Then summer came when Paula was the lone novice at Nazareth. She was missioned to St. Brigid Convent, South Boston to live and work with me at the Salvation Army in Quincy, MA. I had been hired there by Anne Howard, at that time still an SCN, to begin the health component of one of the first five Adult Day Health Centers in MA – a model for many others. Paula, not yet a nurse practitioner, worked with me and then replaced me for my vacation. They loved her.”
“She reminded me at each visit home that ‘it was there that I learned to care for the poor and this experience has led me to continue it in Mississippi.'”
“Before Final Vow Day, I received a song to solo. With the help of my voice professor at Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy, I pulled it off! Paula’s reply, ‘I knew you could do it!’”
“Each spring, she would e-mail me pictures of her garden when we in Massachusetts were still in the doldrums of winter. Our friendship continued strong via e-mails and home visits to Stoneham where her carpentry skills were always welcome. She’d bike ride from Quincy to Stoneham and later requested a motorcycle for Vow Day since ‘the roads in Mississippi were too rough for a bike’– a true Pioneer Woman.”
This memory is from a high school classmate, Becky Bratcher Shetler: “Paula and I were in the class of 1965 with forty-five others. I believe that number is close. She was quite a young girl and had a twinkle in her eye when she smiled that let you know she loved all of us.
“When the [Journey] article and the film circulated in the last few years, that really showed her true love for all she cared for in Mississippi. I thank God for bringing her into our lives. You will not be forgotten, my sister.”
The following tribute was sent by Kathryn (Kate) M. Civitano, accompanied by eight lovely photos taken in Italy: “It was my honor, pleasure and privilege to meet Sister Paula Merrill and Rosemarie Merrill and to tour Italy with them in 2010. I am sorry Sister Paula was taken from this earth. She was such a beautifully kind soul who put others before herself as seen through her awe-inspiring care for those in need at the medical clinic. I also saw this firsthand with how much she looked out for all of us on vacation, especially for my mom. She took time to share and listen with genuine kindness and an excellent sense of humor. May she rest in peace, enjoying every happiness of heaven. May those she loved and whose lives she touched be comforted in knowing that God welcomed her with open arms. The year of prayer for our Italy Tour Group by her and all the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth after our return was tremendously appreciated. She and Rosemarie have made an indelible mark on my heart.”
The last to be included here, though there are many, many more tributes in the Nazareth Archives, is from Dorothy MacDougall, SCN a former Superior General of the SCN Community: “A simple interaction I had with Paula Merrill revealed to me that she possessed the grace to take life as it comes. On the day she made first vows in St. Vincent Church, it was my privilege to present her with the SCN pin. My problem was that I forgot to take Paula’s pin to church when I went for the liturgy and the vow ceremony. When the time came for me to give Paula the SCN pin, the problem was that I forgot to take her SCN pin to St. Vincent Church that day! I took the pin off my jacket lapel and pinned it onto Paula’s. ‘I’ll give you your new pin later,’ I told Paula as I placed the pin on her jacket. ‘I don’t want a new one,’ Paula said; ‘I want to keep this one.’ ‘But this one has a scratch on it,’ I noted. ‘That makes it even better,’ Paula replied. The usual hug after a vow ceremony sealed the deal!”
“Paula and I called each other ‘Pin Pals’ after that whenever we met, and we referred to the incident when we noticed each other’s SCN pins. I had the shiny one; she had the one with the scratch. Our ministries didn’t bring us together very often, but lately I have been reflecting on what I learned about Paula through that simple interaction on her vow day many years ago.”
“Paula accepted life as it happened; people’s little miss-steps didn’t rattle her. Paula knew that well-used items might bear some scratches. She valued the fact that sometimes people, too, bear the scars of wear and tear. These imperfections, she believed, can make people even more dear. Paula could see big meanings in small events. Gospel values and the people who attempted to live them out were her daily focus, and she treasured them both.”
“Because of what the incident revealed to me about Paula, I am so glad that I forgot to take her SCN pin to St. Vincent Church that day!”
There are numerous attributes that could be shared here. Let these few reveal the measure of her dear and generous life.
In early March, 2017, Paula and Margaret were inducted posthumously into the Mississippi Nurses Association Hall of Fame in Jackson, MS at the Nightingale Awards Gala. In mid-May, 2017, the communities of Lexington and Durant gathered at Liberty Park in Durant to dedicate a special marker to the memory of Paula and Margaret. Although she had not known them, a council woman in Durant, Carolyn Reynolds, had heard of all the good work they had done. She was touched by the love and esteem the people had for them, “and thought it would be tragic if there were no memorial for them,” she told Father Plata. She saw even grown men crying about them and thought, “Surely someone like this needs some recognition.” Besides the inscription, the marker contains pictures of the two Sister-practitioners. The lives of Paula and Margaret will continue to inspire for ages to come.
At his sentencing trial on June 21, 2018 before the court in Lexington, Mississippi, Rodney Earl Sanders pleaded guilty to a number of charges against him in the murder of Sister Paula Merrill, SCN and Sister Margaret Held, SSSF. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, since the court respected the fact that neither the Sisters’ families nor their religious communities believe in the death penalty.
Present in the courtroom were representatives of both religious communities, the “new” Sisters who came to serve in the area, members of both Sisters’ families, Rodney’s wife and a few friends. Several gave statements from the victims’ perspective, as did Sister Susan Gatz, President of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. She expressed the great sorrow and pain his actions have caused, the injustice and the inhumanity to the victims and the deprivation of care suffered by the people the Sisters served. Because of Jesus’ example and command, Sister Susan, in the name of the SCN Congregation, offered Mr. Sanders forgiveness with the prayer that he could also forgive himself and turn his life around. There were many tears, but also many expressions of hope and comfort.
Click here to read writings of Sister Paula’s and newspaper articles regarding her death.
Written posthumously by Paschal Maria Fernicola, SCN