ANDOVER, Mass. Friends and family said their final goodbyes to a slain Danvers High School math teacher on Monday. About 1,000 people came to St. Augustine Church here in Colleen Ritzer’s hometown of Andover for her funeral Mass.
The streets around the Roman Catholic church were lined with cars as police monitored traffic at the intersections.
As bells chimed, Ritzer’s casket was brought out of a hearse and into the red brick church. Teachers from Danvers and Andover lined the steps, some wiping away tears.
The church was packed with mourners, including 400 students who came on buses from Danvers High to honor their teacher.
“To say that there is a lot of heartache in that church right now is an understatement,” said Terry Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Gina McDaniel, one of Ritzer’s cousins, delivered the eulogy. The press was not allowed inside the church, but in prepared remarks given to the media, the eulogy praised Ritzer as a teacher.
McDaniel began with words that have become a symbolic slogan for Ritzer’s philosophy: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” That was a tweet Ritzer had sent out in August. Since her death, it’s been retweeted countless times, and even reprinted on the front of the funeral program.
The eulogy also described Ritzer as a woman who loved to wear sweatpants and go to the beach.
“She is the daughter that every parent hopes their children will become once they grow up,” her cousin said.
Others echoed that feeling.
“She just lit up the room,” said Joe Spanos, who taught Ritzer when she was a student at Andover High School. “I’d say, ‘Turn the lights off, Colleen’s here, save power.’ She was that, just, radiant.”
Ritzer went on to become a teaching assistant for Spanos.
“She’s the type of girl you want your son to marry, you want your kids to hang out with,” he said. “You want your child to grow up like Colleen. To lose her at 24 years old, that’s a crime.”
Spanos said he can’t wrap his head around why Ritzer, someone he knew as such a nonviolent person, could have been killed in such a violent way.
Ritzer was murdered after school last Tuesday, allegedly by one of her students. Her body was found in the woods behind Danvers High. Fourteen-year-old Philip Chism is charged as an adult for the murder, and is being held without bail.
In the homily, the reverend insisted that instead of asking why Ritzer died, the community should ask why and how she lived.
“There are no easy answers,” said Fr. Dennis Gallagher, the vice president for mission at Assumption College, Ritzer’s alma mater*.
“What our faith tells us is that God doesn’t provide explanations for these things, but is present with us and accompanies us in the grief and sadness,” he said.
As Ritzer’s casket was taken down the church steps, the bells rang again.
Some mourners could not bear to walk away. Students from Danvers High stood outside the church in the chilly October morning. Some hugged each other, others cried. They waited and watched until the police motorcade rolled away toward the cemetery, before they eventually turned around and headed home to Danvers.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly listed Fr. Dennis Gallagher’s position as the vice president of admissions; he is the vice president for mission.