Police have arrested a suspect in connection with the slaying of two Catholic nuns whose deaths sent shock waves through their rural Mississippi community last week.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, has been charged with two counts of capital murder, according to a statement posted online by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. The decision to charge Sanders was made after an exhaustive interview on Saturday.

"Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation," Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Jordan, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said in the statement. Sanders is being held in a detention centre while he awaits his first court appearance, police say.

Willie March, the sheriff of Holmes County where the killings occurred, said Sanders confessed in the interrogation to the killings and gave no reason for the crimes.


Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held were known and beloved for their service to the poor and the needy, those close to the women said.

The nuns' bodies were discovered by a Durant police officer performing a wellness check after they didn't show up for work in the morning, Assistant Police Chief James Lee said. Durant is a small rural town, about 95km north of the capital, Jackson.

On Friday, police said there was evidence of a break-in at the home the nuns shared and that a blue Toyota Corolla that belonged to them was missing. Later that evening, the missing Corolla was discovered abandoned on a street less than 1.5km from where the nuns were found dead, AP reported.

The Catholic Diocese of Jackson expressed grief over "the murder of two sisters in our diocese". The Rev Greg Plata, who worked with Merrill and Held, said: "These were the two sweetest sisters you could imagine. It's so senseless."

Merrill and Held were part of a group of 20 parishioners who met regularly for worship at St Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Lexington, Mississippi, about 16km west of Durant. Both were nurse practitioners who worked with the Lexington Medical Clinic, where they helped treat thousands of patients a year regardless of their ability to pay, the Clarion-Ledger reported.

- Washington Post, AP