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Wife of nuns' slaying suspect: 'I pray for my husband'

USA TODAY USA TODAY 6/09/2016 Therese Apel

A photograph of Sister Margaret Held of the School Sisters of St. Francis, left, and Sister Paula Merrill, of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, is placed at the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 in Jackson, Miss., where a memorial Mass was held for the two 68-year-old nuns, who were killed Thursday in their Durant, home. Hundreds of people filled the cathedral in Jackson on Monday to remember two nuns who spent decades helping the needy.

A photograph of Sister Margaret Held of the School Sisters of St. Francis, left, and Sister Paula Merrill, of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, is placed at the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 in Jackson, Miss., where a memorial Mass was held for the two 68-year-old nuns, who were killed Thursday in their Durant, home. Hundreds of people filled the cathedral in Jackson on Monday to remember two nuns who spent decades helping the needy.
© AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
DURANT, Miss. — Marie Sanders has never understood so well what it means to be part of the family of God.. 

The stately, dignified woman of faith and mother of three has been fighting her own battles over the last week and a half since husband, Rodney Sanders, 46, was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in the Aug. 25 stabbing deaths of nuns Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill.

Sanders went to her husband's hearing Aug. 29 not knowing what to expect. She'd never done this before.

"I didn't think I'd be able to face that family. But when I walked in, it was like I was looking at the faces of angels," she said.

She's not one to show a lot of emotion, in spite of the moment caught on camera in which she cried with Held and Merrill's church family and they comforted her. She choked up a little again as she talked about the love and support the men and women of the Catholic church showed her. She knew God's love before, but hadn't ever seen it in such living action.

"They told me they love me, they love (Rodney), they said God forgives. That was the hardest thing, I didn't think I could make it because I didn't know how to say I'm sorry to this family, because that was such a great loss. These were women of God, do you hear me?" she said.

"But for them to embrace me the way they did and tell me that they appreciate me, they love me, God loves me, they forgive, the sisters would want them to forgive ... that was a hard pill to swallow."

Childhood sweethearts

Marie and Rodney were married in 2012, but they've loved each other all their lives. They dated when they were in school, until Rodney moved to Iowa. But there are connections that years and miles can't unravel.

"I always felt like he was my soulmate because I have always wondered where he was," she said of the decades they spent apart. "He has my name tattooed on his arm, and it's been there since we were younger."

Neither of them were raised religious, but not many months after she joined the church in 2011, Rodney moved back and they were soon married. She encouraged him to look to God to help him with some of his demons. A felon, he also had been arrested numerous times for DUI.

She knew that helping with his broken places was beyond her ability. When Rodney Sanders was 5 years old, he saw his mother killed in front of his eyes, his wife said. He grew up feeling he had to protect his sister and brother.

"Rodney's not a talker. You can sense when something is bothering a person, and I told him, 'No matter what, you can talk to me. I'm your wife, you're my best friend, you should be able to talk to me.' But you can't make a person talk, so buildup after buildup after buildup, he just didn't understand how to talk to people."

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Time to repent

Sanders doesn't want to talk about whether she thinks her husband committed the brutal killings. She knows he drinks, and at some point had at least dabbled in drugs, and is quick to point out that everyone has a past.

But she remembers the words she said to him in the moments they had together on the day of his initial court appearance.

"Repentance time. I told him, 'It's time to repent for this. And for whatever has been hindering you for all these years, it's repentance time.' That's all I could say. It's all that needs to be said, because he knows I love him."

The couple had a fight a few days before Merrill and Held were killed, and her husband left their Kosciusko, Miss., home to stay with family. Sanders said it wasn't unusual for the two of them to take some time out from each other after they fought, and he would go stay in the shed behind a relative's home just across the street from where the sisters lived in Durant. The fight wasn't anything they weren't going to get over, Sanders said, and she doesn't know what could have gone so wrong. She has replayed that night in her head.

"There was nothing I could do ... I wasn't there. I wasn't there. I beat myself and I beat myself ... if I'd have gone looking for him that Wednesday night, maybe he wouldn't be tied up in this mess," she said.

Missing her husband doesn't take away from the great loss she feels for Held's and Merrill's families, either. She is comforted by the forgiveness shown to her by their church family, but it's still a gaping wound.

"Even so, it still hurts. These were important ladies. These were lives taken, and I can't say that I'm feeling OK by them forgiving, because I don't feel OK. I'm blessed to know that they accept my apology, but I can only imagine how they feel," she said. "But it was wonderful to see the reactions, the love that they showed me, and they didn't frown when Rodney came in.

"That's God's love. That's Agape love. That's the kind of love that God wants us to show people now and that's what's wrong with the world. People don't love."

Picking up the pieces

One night as she walked to try to clear her head, a cat joined her. 

The cat followed her home. He doesn't have a name yet, but he keeps her company. Meanwhile, she trusts God to keep bridging the gap between himself and her husband. 

"Whether you're in the jail for the rest of your life, or in the jail for 10 days, God is everywhere and he's going to work on you until he gets you where he wants you to be," she said. "I'm praying for my husband, and I know it's going to work out. It's not going to work out today, it's not going to work out next week. God is working on him, and he's going to be a mighty man of God and he's going to have a testimony."

Follow Therese Apel on Twitter: @TRex21

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