Mississippi Healing

Posted by Spalding Hurst

February 19, 2016

A Ministry of Compassionate Care



“Have you been feeling okay?”

“How much do you have?”

“Are you out?”

“A bottle lasts you 12 days?”

Paula Merrill, SCN, asks these questions of Evette, one of her patients at Lexington Medical Clinic in rural Mississippi.



Located in central Mississippi, this clinic offers health care to all ages. In 2014, the clinic provided nearly 8,000 patient visits. The socioeconomic needs are great. Approximately 40 percent of the patients are uninsured or have only Medicaid, 41 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty, and 62 percent of those living in poverty are children.

“Deep breaths, in and out,” she says to Evette while listening with her stethoscope.

Paula Merrill, SCN, examines a patient and discusses medication. Sister Paula sees patients in Holmes County, Mississippi.

As she continues with her examination of Evette, Sister Paula reminds her to take her medications and encourages her to get a flu shot. Evette says she can’t afford the flu shot but maybe she’ll come back for it. Sister Paula won’t let her out of it that easily, saying, “Why, why not today? We have the flu shot here at no cost. It was donated.” And with that, her patient agrees to the shot.

Sister Paula talks to Evette about her blood pressure and gives her some grief about her sugar levels. She sees many cases of diabetes and high blood pressure.

“I couldn’t resist the snacks at work,” Evette explains.

Evette’s mother, Eva, had to have her leg amputated at the knee due to diabetic complications.

Sister Paula takes her time with Evette, and her mother Eva who has joined her for today’s exam. She answers questions and gives medical advice. She listens to their concerns.

“That’s part of the training. That you listen,” Sister Paula says.

Sister Paula has served in health care ministry in Mississippi for over 30 years. She has served at this particular health clinic as a nurse practitioner since 2010. “I’ve been a nurse forever.”

Watch Sister Paula in action in this video.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Sister Paula moved to the South as a second-year novice with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Her landscape changed to include the green, climbing, beautiful but invasive kudzu and acres of cotton fields that look like snow. She had to get used to the thick heat that lasts until December. But she felt a connection and a need to serve the people. She has been there ever since.

“I don’t know why,” she says. “Why move again?” she laughs.

At the clinic, Sister Paula serves both children and adults. As much as her ministry serves the people medically, Sister Paula also spends time helping people in other ways.

“We do more social work than medicine sometimes,” she explains. “Sometimes patients are looking for a counselor.”

A headache brought Jacobi, age 4, to see Sister Paula. She checks his ears, asking his mother about his symptoms. She asks about his medications and listens to his heart and lungs. She notes no infection and diagnoses the boy with a cold. Her peaceful demeanor keeps the child calm and relaxed and he smiles as he tells her about his favorite cartoon characters.

Sister Paula shares the bulk of the clinic’s caseload with Margaret Held, SSSF, who is also a nurse practitioner. Every other week, the doctor on staff, Dr. Abboud, visits patients at the clinic.

Dr. Abboud is very appreciative of the care both Sister Paula and Sister Margaret give to their patients. “Paula is great. She is thorough and aggressive,” he says. “They help the patients so thoroughly. That’s the compassionate way to do medicine. They go the extra mile. No doubt about that.”

Willie Paul, a local farm worker, has known Sister Paula for 12 years. He started out as her patient and over the years, the two have become friends. Sister Paula has helped him become a healthier person. He says he’s not sure he’d be alive today without Sister 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.”


  1. Rev. Marge (Hines) Doyle

    Sr. Paula and I were friends at Nazareth. She brought a wisdom and sense of compassion wherever she went. My heart grieves her loss. The Episcopal community at St. Alban’s in Hoover, Al holds all of her friends, family, and patients in prayer.

    • Andrea Balconis, OP, MD

      I am privileged to have ministered with Paula and Margaret at DePorres Health Center in Marks, MS for 8 years and treasure fond memories of those years. My last picture of them was a few years back when they came to visit Sister Yolanda and me in Florida and Paula was wearing her Donald Duck T shirt. I brought that photo to Mass yesterday at our parish in Port St. Lucie and the pastor placed it on the altar, dedicated his Mass to them and preached a beautiful homily about their lives and dedication and service to God’s people. I was lector at the Mass and could not hold back the tears. It is so sad that so many will suffer as a result of this tragedy. I know we have 2 new saints in heaven, but we will miss them terribly.

  2. Frank

    I did not know you but having read your story and all that you’ve done to help the poor my heart is totally broken and hurt. Rest well your legacy will never be forgotten but those who knew you and those who did not.
    Peace and Blessings??

  3. Sally Browning

    This breaks sooooooo many hearts….. What a terrible tragedy.
    The value and sweetness of these Sisters’ lives ending in such an awful manner . May all those who knew them gather strength and peace knowing they are both in Our Dear Lord’s arms.
    They will both be missed by so many who are disparate and in need of care and healing. Be strong and know The Good Lord will take care to fill this communities needs but the Good Sisters’ shoes will always remain empty.
    I pray and think of all who have heavy hearts and sad days ahead including the Religious Communities, Families, Friends, and the people of Mississippi the Sisters loved sooooooo much. Be strong and remember the treasured memories you have of what good Sisters you were blessed to know.
    Sally Browning

  4. Madeline Kelly osu

    My heart goes out to all the people they served as well as their religious orders. What a loss. I worked with a School Sister of St Francis and she too had a heart of gold. You all are in my prayers

    • Anita Baird DHM

      Last week I was in Louisville to celebrate the golden jubilee of Sr. Patricia Haley, SCN. Little did her community know that they would be mourning the deaths of Sisters Paula and Margaret one week later. Our prayers are with their communities, families and the people they loved, served and lived among in Mississippi. May they rest in the arms of a loving God, who has called them home to their eternal reward. RIP

  5. Rosemary Finnegan, O.P.

    On behalf of the Sisters Council of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, I want to extend our heartfelt sympathy to your Religious Community as you suffer the tragic loss of your Sister Paula. As both she and Sister Margaret were instruments of grace for others in their lives, so now in their deaths. Please know of our thoughts and prayers for you, their families, friends and those whom they served. May we all be inspired to work for peace and an end to violence.

  6. Brother Dominic Carroll

    The Brothers of the Immaculte Heart of Mary of Steubenville, Ohio are remembering the good Sisters in their prayers.

  7. Marilyn Pierson, OP

    Sympathy and prayers to the SCN and SSSF communities and the families and friends of Paula and Margaret on these tragic and senseless murders. I feel a connection to both of them having ministered in Tutwiler, 20 miles south of where they were in Marks, MS before their move to Durant to continue serving the poor. They will be greatly missed there and by all who knew them.

    • Maryellen

      Absolutely first rate and corpop-bettomed, gentlemen!

  8. Peter

    Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. We are all diminished by this terrible crime which shows that Christ is crucified daily as his work is carried on throughout the world. Prayers and love from Scotland.

  9. Paula Merrill

    What amazing women of faith. What a tragic event. I am so sorry for their loss and send my deepest sympathy to their friends, families and patients. I am proud to share my name with Sister Paula

  10. Regina Ryan

    Thank u for love and affection to the community. We will miss you both!

  11. Mary Ruth Leandres, Dominican Sister of Peace

    Who could ever take the place of two very dedicated and compassionate Sisters? Praying for the SCNs and the people of Holmes County and beyond for our loving God to fill the void left by this awful crime.

  12. Pat Reno, OP

    “Charity cannot be neutral, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial!
    Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages!
    For true charity is always unconditional and gratuitous.”

    The words of Pope Francis surely describe the ministry of Paula and Margaret.

    We celebrate their faithful and loving lives and send our sympathy to you.
    Cordially,- Pat

    • Claudia Connors

      Beautifully said….our hearts go out to all who knew them, were served by them and who will deeply miss them in their lives…God Bless

  13. Rachel M Williams, OSF

    Praying for the family, sisters, friends of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret; I know they “rest in peace”. We are blessed to have had on this earth these loving and giving Sisters.

  14. Hilda Lobo

    I am proud of you Paula. I saw you three years back. You heal all those who come to you with your kind words and medication. Keep up your good work.

    • Jim Goode

      So grateful for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth


    Paula, in your own quiet, unassuming manner you have lived and served the SCN mission! So glad I got to see you at the reunion! Bless you for all you do.

  16. Barbara Spencer

    Paula, I have always been inspired by you and the work you do. The people are blessed to have you as their doctor and friend. Many blessings. Barbara Spencer

  17. Rose Eleanor Perry, scn

    When we “older” Sisters talk about our mission to serve the less fortunate; to try to bring peace to a troubled world, etc., I often think of you, Paula. It is a great consolation knowing that such “hands on” ministry as yours continues our SCN hopes and dreams. Blessings!

  18. Ann-Marie Houghton, SCNA

    Dear Paula, I remember when you first came to Nazareth. George and I were living in the Guest House. It has been a joy to watch your commitment and service to the poor flourish in Mississippi over all these years. Paula, you are an example of a compassionate woman coming from Massachusetts. You inspire us.

  19. Susan Gatz

    Paula, my classmate, you have been “on the margins” for years. Thank you for living the SCN mission so faithfully and joyfully. So inspired by you!

    • Mike Flaherty

      Beautifully said

  20. Connie Tarallo

    I am so proud of you good neighbor and friend. You and Margaret make a great team and your patients are so blessed to blessed to have you both. Thank you for sharing your ministry with all of us. Connie Tarallo

  21. Maria Brocato

    My dear Paula and Margaret, on behalf of the people of Mississippi, my home state, thank you. For those of us who know you, we are so grateful for your competence and caring.. Loving support, Maria

  22. Anne Beavan

    I’m so proud of you, Paula, and your dedication to the poor and those hungry for attention and love! Many blessings! Anne B

  23. Sister Margaret Davenport

    Dear Paula, My deep gratitude to you for your faithfulness to those in Mississippi who have great need of your love and care. I treasure the memory of our past connection there…a deepening of our faith journey along the way. With love and prayer.

  24. Marietta,scn

    Very beautiful Paula !! Thanks so very much for sharing !!
    Blessings as you continue your ministry to the people of Mississippi,

  25. Cecilia Simick

    Great Work God bless our SCN sisters who are out there among the poor nad needy .

  26. Jamie Sample

    We love our Sister Paula so much! How blessed we are to have such a compassionate, caring, Christian example serving our community such as Sr. Paula. She’s the best!

  27. Sister Roshini Pereira SCN

    i am really proud of you Paula ! I am touched by the way you listen to your patients & reach our to them with such dedication .Truly your is a ministry of compassionate care!

  28. M. Serra Goethals, SCN

    Dear Paula, you are a marvel. I so admire your compassionate listening and careful handling of the difficult cases that come to you each day. Thank you for your dedication to and love for the poor in MS. You are an inspiration. Blessings on your work each day.

  29. Angie

    I am so proud to call Paula my sister. She lives the charism of Mother Catherine Spalding with courage and compassion.

  30. Michelle

    What a beautiful ministry of service and compassion! Thank you for sharing!


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