By Dustin Luca and Sonya Vartabedian
---- — At 9:50 a.m. Monday, the bells of St. Augustine Church rang out as Colleen Ritzer’s mother, father, sister and brother, joined by the Rev. Peter Gori, climbed the center granite steps to the sanctuary.
Together, they followed a mahogany casket, escorted by Ritzer’s cousins serving as pallbearers, into the Essex Street church that has served as the family’s spiritual home for three generations.
Filing along behind them were more than 100 relatives who formed the funeral procession that was led to St. Augustine by police motorcade just minutes before.
The procession passed a sea of Ritzer’s teaching colleagues and education leaders from both her hometown of Andover and her teaching community of Danvers, who stood four and five deep as they lined the church stairways on either side.
They were among the upward of 1,000 mourners — including about 400 students from Danvers High School where the beloved 24-year-old math teacher was slain last week — who joined together to tearfully remember a young woman who was described as an angel to many.
“It is said that a burden which is shared becomes lighter. That is true, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now,” Gori told the congregation in opening his homily for Ritzer’s funeral Mass.
The 525-seat main church was filled to capacity, with many donning pink ribbons, scarves and other items in honor of Ritzer’s favorite color.
Below them, the Danvers High students, who arrived at the funeral with their teachers in one dozen school buses, listened to an audio stream of the Mass from the church basement.
So many were gathered upstairs, members of the Danvers Honor Guard who saw Ritzer’s family and loved ones to and from St. Augustine were pressed against the church’s front doors.
“It was a tremendous testimony to who Colleen is,” the Rev. Dennis Gallagher, vice president of admissions at Assumption College in Worcester, where Ritzer earned her undergraduate degree, said after the Mass. “So many generations of people, from elderly to all the students downstairs, who were touched by a life that was, altogether, too short.”
Inside the church, cousin Gina McDaniel described Ritzer as the daughter who every parent hopes their child will become when they grow up. She said Ritzer’s love for teaching was second only to her love for her family.
“Her heart and soul were encompassed in her family,” McDaniel said.
But it was teaching where Ritzer especially shined, McDaniel said, becoming a mentor to her students in just the first few years of her career. McDaniel said the effect her cousin had can be seen in how people have bonded together to commemorate and celebrate her life.
“(She) made people feel loved, comforted and optimistic,” McDaniel said. “Colleen’s grace made her life fulfilling. In such a short period of time, one person has made a world of difference.”
Fr. Gori's homily highlighted Ritzer’s inclination “to see the good in people, especially her students,” Gori said. “She enjoyed them and respected them; she cared about them and she cared for them; she loved them.”
In addition to Gallagher, the visiting clergy included Bishop Peter Uglietto of the North Region of the Archdiocese of Boston, where Danvers High School is located. He represented the sympathy of Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
“To say that there’s a lot of heartache in that church right now is an understatement,” Terry Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, told the bevy of media, who watched from outside the church at the request of the family. “But we call it a celebration of life, and that’s what this will be.”
Other speakers included Ritzer’s best friend since childhood, Jennifer Berger, who did one of the readings, and her mentor, Laura Fogerty, who provided the universal prayer. The responsorial psalm, Psalm 42, had the congregation repeating, “My soul is thirsting for the living God; when shall I see him face to face?” Her aunts made the presentation of offerings for the full Catholic Mass.
As Gori offered his final prayer, the congregation stood for the song of farewell.
About 11:20 a.m., the front doors to St. Augustine opened again and the church bells began to ring. Gori and six other priests and religious leaders in white vestments quietly filed down the front center steps. They stopped midway, lining up on either side.
Hundreds of Danvers High students, many with their arms around each other’s shoulders and hands clasped together, began pouring out of a side door and stood at attention as they lined the sidewalk to the left of the church. Ritzer’s teaching colleagues reemerged and once again filled the church’s two side stairways.
Eight minutes later, Ritzer’s cousins accompanied her casket down the church steps to the awaiting hearse.
As the recessional hymn, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” was sung, her distraught family — father Tom, mother Peggie, brother Daniel and sister Laura — made their way behind it.
The church bells continued ringing for almost 20 minutes, as Ritzer’s family and friends filed out and took their places to the right of the church. They rang as the last of the floral arrangements were loaded into the hearse and Gori walked down the church steps alone, taking a seat in the hearse.
And they continued ringing as the mourners stood in stoic silence and sympathy as a motorcade of Ritzer’s immediate family and close relatives and friends slowly began the less than 2-mile journey to Spring Grove Cemetery on Abbot Street for a private burial.
“Heaven stole an angel from us today,” McDaniel told the congregation in the closing words of her remembrance. “You will always be in our hearts; we love you, rest in peace.”
A legacy ensured
To carry on the legacy of Colleen Ritzer and her passion for teaching, the Ritzer family has established the Colleen Ritzer Memorial Scholarship Fund. The scholarship will be awarded to students who are pursuing a degree in education so they can continue her legacy of making a difference in a student’s life.
To make a donation to the fund, make a check payable to ECCF/Colleen Ritzer Fund and mail it to Essex County Community Foundation, 175 Andover St., Danvers, 01923.