ANDOVER — As the church bells tolled, mourners stood shoulder to shoulder on the stone steps, huddling to the side to clear a path for the pallbearers. They were teachers, some who had worked with slain Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer, and some who had taught her when she was a student.
Some watched through tears as her casket was carried into St. Augustine Church in the center of town, where more than 1,000 people gathered for Ritzer’s funeral. Ritzer was remembered as a vivacious spirit and natural teacher who had a gift for connecting with her students, several hundred of whom attended the service, and whose violent death was impossible to comprehend.
“There was an ocean of sadness inside this church,” the Rev. Dennis Gallagher, an administrator at Assumption College, from which Ritzer graduated in 2011, said after the service. “She saw the goodness in other people. She had a gift for that.”
At the family’s request, the media did not attend the funeral.
Ritzer, 24, was killed last week, allegedly in an attack by a 14-year-old student, Philip Chism. Chism, who moved with his family to Massachusetts this summer after living in Tennessee, has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder and is being held without bail. Law enforcement officials have provided few details about Ritzer’s death and have not disclosed a possible motive.
On the day she died, Ritzer had asked Chism to stay after class to help him prepare for a math test, students in the class said.
In a remembrance during Monday’s service, Ritzer’s cousin, Gina McDaniel, said Ritzer had the gift of “inspiration” and had the ability to make people feel hopeful and loved.
“She possessed an energetic intensity that is rarely seen,” McDaniel said, according to remarks provided by a family spokesman. “Her self-esteem, intelligence, drive, and love of humanity affected everyone she met.”
McDaniel described Ritzer as an upbeat presence who “lit up the room with her contagious smile,” and used catch-phrases such as “Yay, math!” to make her classes more fun. In the days since her death, she said, student after student has attested to her impact. “She was not just their teacher, but their mentor.”
Ritzer was deeply devoted to friends and family, McDaniel said. Growing up, she loved family trips to Cape Cod and Florida, and was “the daughter that every parent hopes their children will become.”
“The love she was given as a child continued to thrive through her life,” McDaniel said.
While not an athlete, Ritzer enjoyed the spirit of sports and often cheered her sister on at her hockey games.
Ritzer also loved spending time with friends, even if they were just driving around aimlessly. “It didn’t matter where they went as long as they were going there together,” McDaniel said.
In a homily, the Rev. Peter Gori, pastor of St. Augustine, said that while it is natural to search for answers in the face of terrible loss, they often prove elusive.
“That makes it hurt even more,” he said. “We have names for a death like Colleen’s, words that burn our lips. Yet, no amount of evidence or facts can ever justify it or explain it.”
Gori recalled Ritzer as a born teacher who fulfilled her dream with “great joy and talent.” Inclined to see the good in people, she helped them see the good in themselves, he said.
“For Colleen, being a teacher was not just a job or a career,” he said. “It was a calling.”
After the service, a former teacher at Ritzer’s alma mater, Andover High School, recalled her as an “angel” who was taken too soon.
“She lit up the room,” Joe Spanos, said after the service.
In emotional remarks, Spanos said Ritzer’s killing was “unconscionable” and urged parents to watch their children closely for signs of trouble.
“The most nonviolent person gets attacked in the most violent way,” he said, shaking his head.
After the service, mourners returned to their place on the church steps, while students looked on from the side. As pallbearers carried the casket down the steps, one student broke down in tears, and covered her face with her hands.