DURANT, Miss. -
Two nuns who worked as nurses and helped the poor in rural Mississippi were found slain in their home, perhaps victims of a break-in and vehicle theft, officials said Thursday.
Authorities would not say if they have a suspect but disclosed that they'd recovered a car missing from the home and were towing it to a crime lab for analysis. They also did not release a cause of death, but the Rev. Greg Plata said police told him the sisters were stabbed.
The nuns were identified as Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, both 68. Their bodies were taken to a state crime lab for autopsies.
The women, both nurse practitioners, were found Thursday morning when they didn't report to work at a nearby clinic, where they provided flu shots, insulin and other medical care for children and adults who couldn't afford it.
"They were two of the sweetest, most gentle women you can imagine. Their vocation was helping the poor," said Plata, who oversees a 35-member Catholic church the sisters attended.
The School Sisters of St. Francis say they are "deeply shocked and grieved" by the killings of a Catholic nun from Wisconsin and another nun in Mississippi.
In a statement from their U.S. Province Leadership Team, the Milwaukee order says Sister Margaret Held had been a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis for 49 years "and lived her ministry caring for and healing the poor."

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki says whoever killed Held "robbed not only the School Sisters of St. Francis, but also the entire Church of a woman whose life was spent in service."
Maureen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said there were signs of a break-in at the home and the nuns' vehicle was missing.
Later, Warren Strain, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said the blue Toyota Corolla was found abandoned Thursday evening on a secluded street barely a mile from the home, the vehicle apparently undamaged. He said police haven't determined when the car was abandoned and it was being towed to the state crime lab near Jackson, Mississippi's capital city.
Authorities didn't release a motive and it wasn't clear if the nuns' religious work had anything to do with the slayings.
"I have an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach," said Durant Assistant Police Chief James Lee, who is Catholic.
Police Chief John Haynes said officers are checking video from surveillance cameras in town to see if they spot anything unusual.
Merrill had worked in Mississippi for more than 30 years, according to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky. She was from Massachusetts and joined the order in 1979.
Two years later, she moved to the South and found her calling in the Mississippi Delta community, according to a 2010 article in The Journey, a publication by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
When asked about her ministry, Merrill was humble.
"We simply do what we can wherever God places us," Merrill said.
A video on the order's website detailed her work, interviewing her and her patients talking about the care they had received.
"What really appalls me is over 60 percent of the children live in poverty," Merrill said.
Earlier in her career, she helped bring a tuberculosis outbreak under control in the region, said Lisa Dew, who managed the Lexington Medical Clinic where the sisters worked.
"They'll help anybody they can help. They'll give you the shirt off their back," she said.
Merrill saw children and adults, and helped in other ways.
"We do more social work than medicine sometimes," Merrill told The Journey. "Sometimes patients are looking for a counselor."
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left much of the town was without power for weeks, the sisters allowed people over to their house to cook because they had a gas stove.
They were skilled in stretching resources, and routinely produced amazing dishes out of what seemed like a very small home garden, said Sam Sample, lay leader of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, where the sisters were members.
"These ladies didn't require any fanfare, any bells and whistles. They would just keep their nose to the grindstone, doing what had to be done