Community bids farewell to slain Danvers teacher

ANDOVER -- More than 1,000 people gathered at St. Augustine Church in Andover to bid a final farewell to slain Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer, Oct. 28.

The 24 year old teacher's body was found in a wooded area near Danvers High School, Oct. 22. One for her students, 14-year-old Philip Chism, has been charged with her murder.

Before the Mass, Ritzer's cousin Gina McDaniel spoke about the inspiration Ritzer provided in teaching her students.

She reflected on a Twitter message from Ritzer before her death, a quote attributed elsewhere to the popular singer Taylor Swift.

"No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind," Ritzer "tweeted" in August.

The message likely contributed to the view of students, who arrived at the funeral in busses, that their math teacher understood them by connecting to their interests.

"She possessed an energetic intensity that is rarely seen. Her self-esteem, intelligence, drive, and love of humanity affected everyone she met. She made people feel loved, comforted, and optimistic. Colleen's grace made her life fulfilling. In such a short period of time, one person has made a world of difference," said McDaniel.

McDaniel said she heard the phrase "amazing teacher" many times in the days before the funeral, as people who knew her shared their memories.

"All describing a bright light in our lives who just wanted to make this world a better place by focusing on the adults of our future. Colleen's passion in life was to be a teacher," she said.

In his homily, St. Augustine's pastor Father Peter G. Gori, OSA, reflected on Ritzer's work as a calling with significance flowing through the classroom and beyond, despite the tragedy of a life cut short.

"Twenty-four years is not a very long time, by anyone's measurement. And yet, in that time that was hers, she showed herself to be a beloved daughter and granddaughter, a delightful sister, niece and cousin, a really good friend and student, and not least of all, a truly wonderful teacher. As a teacher she fulfilled a desire and her dream and she did so with great joy and talent. Everyone would agree that Colleen was born to be a teacher. Indeed, she lived for it," Father Gori said.

Father Gori echoed a sentiment from her students and fellow teachers reported in local and national media as the story developed, as he said that she connected with her students in a special way.

"Not everyone who tries to be a good teacher succeeds. For example, as brilliant as he was, St. Augustine admits that he failed as a classroom teacher," Father Gori said. "He blamed the students because he couldn't understand them."

In the outpouring support at memorial events in Danvers for days after the incident, it became clear that Ritzer had truly connected with students and the community.

Father Gori quoted St. Augustine, in reference to a Scripture reading during the Mass.

"Of necessity we must be sorrowful when those whom we love leave us in death. Although we know that they have not left us behind forever, but only gone ahead of us, still, when death seizes our loved ones, our loving hearts are saddened by death itself. Thus the Apostle Paul does not tell us not to grieve, but not to grieve like those who are without hope," he said.

He said in using her talent for the good, Ritzer reflected an important aspect of Christ -- his vocation as a teacher.

"Jesus always listens to the question and He responds with word and action. The good teacher does that. The good teacher welcomes the questions and the questioner. Indeed, as the best of teachers, Jesus even teaches us how to question, how to search for answers, and how to accept the answer we may not like," he said.

"For Colleen, being a teacher was not just a job or a career. It was a calling, or as we say, a vocation. Years ago, she must have heard the question that is posed on this banner here, 'God has blessed me in unique ways. How should I use my gifts to serve Him?' Colleen knew the answer and she gave it," Father Gori said.

In the homily Father Gori also reflected on how questions surrounding faith and life might come up as the community and her family heals.

"As we struggle with our questions today, tonight and tomorrow, let us not hesitate to ask the Teacher for extra help. He helps us to see that a good life and a long life are not necessarily the same thing. He teaches us to see the good in ourselves and in one another, because we are created in God's own image and likeness. He shows us how to be selfless. He teaches us to be grateful for it all," he said.

Ritzer graduated magna cum laude in 2011 from Assumption College, a Catholic college in Worcester, shortly before she began teaching at Danvers High School.

"The Assumption community will keep Colleen's family members in its thoughts and prayers during this time of great sorrow and loss. We pray that God will give them strength and comfort during these difficult days and commend Colleen to God's loving presence," Assumption College president Francesco Cesareo said, in a statement.

The untimely tragedy halted Ritzer's pursuit of a master's degree at Salem State University, to supplement her abilities as a teacher.

A statement from the school confirmed her commitment to making a difference in the world by teaching.

"Colleen was a bright and vibrant student in the School Counseling master's degree program. As a dedicated teacher, Colleen wanted to work with and help children with special needs. She believed children have much to offer and often do not realize how special they are as individuals," school president Patricia Maguire Meservey said.

The Ritzer family has established the Colleen Ritzer Memorial Scholarship Fund, in honor of their daughter. The scholarship will be awarded to students pursuing a degree in education.