ANDOVER — The stream of black-clad mourners had dwindled to a trickle when the yellow school buses came to honor Colleen Ritzer.
Led by a thunderous escort of police motorcycles, the buses roared into downtown Andover carrying teachers and students from Danvers. Hundreds on board came to pay respects to the effervescent 24-year-old math teacher who authorities say was killed by a student at Danvers High School last week.
About 10 buses in all parked next to St. Augustine Church, where Ritzer’s wake was held Sunday afternoon.
High school students, college classmates, and family friends had visited the church throughout the afternoon to say goodbye. They stood in groups, bracing against a stiff October wind, hands shoved deep into jacket pockets. Bouquets of pink and white flowers — pink was Ritzer’s favorite color — were placed on the stairs leading into the church, where photo slide shows and posters displayed images from the teacher’s life.
“You just see how much she got out of [her 24 years],” Laura Fogarty, Ritzer’s preschool teacher, told reporters, who were kept outside the church.
In 1990, Fogarty met Colleen Ritzer, then a 15-month-old toddler carrying a green blanket and wearing a sparkling smile. She taught the little girl for the next three years. “If there was another child crying, as a 2-year-old, she would go hug them,” Fogarty said.
Ritzer made such an impression that Fogarty asked Ritzer to be the flower girl in her wedding seven years later.
“Every opportunity she had to make this world better, she embraced it and she loved it,” Fogarty said.
Officials have said that Ritzer was stabbed and cut with a box cutter after school Tuesday. Philip Chism, 14, her student who moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee this summer, is facing a murder charge as an adult and is being held without bail.
“Now someone won’t have her as a loving mother, someone won’t have her as a wife,” said Bunny Monteiro, another preschool teacher who had taught Ritzer when she was a little girl. “Everyone loses.”
At the visiting hours Sunday, Ritzer’s college roommates recalled fondly how Ritzer brought cheer to their home.
“Our room was decorated with inspirational quotes everywhere,” said Caroline Rufo. “It was such an uplifting place to live.”
Another roommate, Natalie Geeza, said Ritzer was especially buoyant around the holiday season and “always had a way of reaching out with holiday cards.”
Ritzer loved yoga pants, which she called “heaven for your legs,” Rufo said, and teaching came to her naturally even as an undergraduate. “There’s going to be a void forever in our hearts,” Rufo said.
Earlier Sunday morning, parishioners had filled the Andover church for Sunday Masses, where they prayed for Ritzer, her family, and victims of violence everywhere.
And in Danvers Sunday morning, elaborately tied pink ribbons hung from the doors of St. Mary of the Annunciation Church in memory of Ritzer.
“We can focus, if we want, on how Colleen died, which I suggest is the wrong thing to do,” the Rev. Michael Doyle said from the pulpit. “We can focus instead on how she lived, and the message that her life proclaimed to our community and the rest of the world; that it is ultimately about love, and care, and compassion.”
Doyle said he did not know Ritzer, but has read about her since her death. He recited a few quotes she posted to her Twitter account and drew parallels to St. Paul, who knew “the importance of fighting the good fight, running the race, and keeping the faith.”
“It made me resolve that the right way to deal with this was to focus on her, and tell of the light that she brought into people’s lives,” he said.
After the 10 a.m. Mass, standing on the street outside the church, Doyle spoke again of the sadness, yet the brightness that remained as her legacy. “It is heartbreaking,” Doyle said. “I think Colleen was always looking for light, so, in kind of an ironic way, she provides us with a way forward with what she proclaimed and how she lived.”
At St. Richard of Chichester Church in Danvers, a priest asked parishioners to pray for both Ritzer and Chism, as well as their families, students, and school administrators.
“Their lives are lost to us, and we need to put them in God’s hands,” the Rev. Bruce G. Flannagan said after the service. “We are just praying for God’s grace for everybody.”
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