Colleen Ritzer, slain Danvers High teacher, remembered as ‘bright light’ whose life ended too soon

ANDOVER — With hundreds of students in the pews, beloved Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer, who was allegedly murdered by a student last week, was mourned in a funeral Mass this morning at St. Augustine’s Church.

An estimated 1,000 people, including 400 students, attended the service, which began at about 10 a.m. after her casket was carried into the church by her cousins.

In a eulogy, one of her cousins, Gina McDaniel, described Ritzer’s passion for education as one of the hallmarks of the 24-year-old’s life.

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“Colleen’s passion in life was to be a teacher,’’ McDaniel wrote in her prepared remarks, which were provided to reporters by a Ritzer family spokesman. She was a “bright light in our lives who just wanted to make this world a better place by focusing on the adults of the future.’’

Ritzer, in just two years at the school, had developed strong ties with students.

And the words she used in a recent post on her Twitter account were printed on the front of the funeral program, words that now have taken on great significance to those who knew, loved, and respected the Andover native.

“No matter what happens in life, be good to people,’’ Ritzer tweeted this summer. “Being good is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.’’

In the eulogy, McDaniel also recalled Ritzer as a person who owned a large collection of yoga pants – but never did yoga. She was a woman who loved to sunbathe, McDaniel noted, but who never tanned. Ritzer was never much of an athlete – she once got a C in gym, while getting A’s in academic subjects – yet loved the camaraderie of sports.

“Colleen’s gift was that of inspiration. She possessed an energetic intensity that is rarely seen,’’ McDaniel said. “Her self-esteem, intelligence, drive and love of humanity affected everyone she met. She made people feel loved, comforted, and optimistic.’’

She added, “Colleen’s grace made her life fulfilling. In such a short period of time, one person has made a world of difference.’’

McDaniel also described Ritzer as devoted to her parents and her two siblings, a brother and sister, and as someone who reveled in family gatherings. “She is the daughter that every parent hopes their children will become once they grow up,’’ McDaniel said.

McDaniel ended her eulogy with a number of quotations, and this summary of her life: “A heart so big, God couldn’t let it live.’’

“May angels lead you in,” McDaniel said. “Your memory will live on forever in the hearts of everyone you touched as a teacher, daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin and friend. Heaven stole an angel from us today.’’

Ritzer was allegedly killed inside the Danvers school on Tuesday by Philip D. Chism, a 14-year-old who had recently moved to Massachusetts from Clarksville, Tenn. Chism has been charged with first-degree murder as an adult, has pleaded not guilty, and is being held without bail by the Essex County sheriff’s department.

Ritzer was a math teacher and Chism one of her students.

The funeral led to the closure of some streets surrounding the Roman Catholic church and the arrival of a large number of police officers, reporters, and television crews.

The services are being held one day after the church, which her family has been associated with for decades, was used for her wake.

In his homily today, the Rev. Peter G. Gori called Ritzer’s death “a great tragedy’’ that has “shocked and horrified’’ the community.

“We are naturally inclined to ask, ‘Why?’ It is immensely frustrating when, like now, there is no satisfactory answer to that question. …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, and that too hurts.’’

Gori drew a parallel between Ritzer, the teacher, and Jesus, whom he noted was often called a teacher in the Bible.

“As we struggle with our questions today, tonight and tomorrow, let us not hesitate to ask the Teacher for extra help,’’ Gori wrote in his homily, which was also provided to reporters.