By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — Hundreds of mourners from every corner of Colleen Ritzer’s life — from her preschool teachers to high school and college classmates to busloads of her fellow teachers and students from Danvers High School — filed into St. Augustine Church in downtown Andover yesterday to deliver an outpouring of love and sympathy to her anguished family.
Three hours after calling hours began for the 24-year-old math teacher from Andover who was murdered inside Danvers High School last week allegedly by one of her students, a roaring convoy of police motorcycles led nine buses labeled “DANVERS PUBLIC SCHOOLS” through downtown Andover.
At 6:15 p.m., hundreds of students and teachers poured out of those buses and lined up on the sidewalk alongside the Essex Street church to pay their final respects. The Danvers community sported pink ribbons over their hearts — a nod to Ritzer and her favorite color.
Throughout the day, those who knew Ritzer waited for more than an hour at times to say goodbye. Inside the church, they saw floral arrangements and slideshows that reflected the rich life of an active, always smiling daughter, friend and educator. Outside, there were more pink floral arrangements lining the steps up to the church.
For those sharing their thoughts about Ritzer outside the church, her smile was foremost in their minds.
“The smile could light up the room,” said Laura Fogarty, who was Ritzer’s preschool teacher from the age of 15 months to 5 years old. “She’d squeeze you and hug you. She would have a temper the exact same way.”
“She was full of everything,” Fogarty added. “Full of energy. Full of life.”
Caroline Rufo, Ritzer’s college roommate at Assumption College in Worcester, described the dorm room they shared their junior and senior years as “such an uplifting place to live.”
“Our room was decorated with inspirational quotes, everywhere,” Rufo said. “There was always Christmas music playing and her dancing around.”
While mourners by the hundreds formed a line down Essex Street, a group of about a half-dozen teachers watched from across the street. They didn’t know Ritzer, but were touched by the circumstances of her death.
Two of them held signs that read “#TeacherStrong for Danvers.”
Adrienne Masiello, an English teacher at the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough, said none of them were going into the church. They were there for those who did.
“Today wasn’t really about going inside,” Masiello said. “We wanted to save that for her close friends, family that wanted to do that. We’re here as a form of support.”
The social media hashtag #TeacherStrong was intended to convey a sense of unity and strength amid the recent tragedies in public schools nationwide, according to Masiello.
“Given all these recent events — Nevada, Sandy Hook — schools are no longer the safest place you can imagine,” she said. “It’s just sending a message that no matter what, we’re going to continue to teach. We’re going to continue to provide a safe environment for our students.”
Ken Kwajewski, a retired West Middle School teacher in Andover who had Ritzer in his computer class more than a decade ago, said the #TeacherStrong message stood out as “a good show of support for fellow colleagues.”
“Like with police and fire, you form a bond with your fellow teachers,” he said.
When asked to describe Ritzer as a middle school student, Kwajewski, too, resorted to her smile.
“It’s what everybody says — ‘one of the nicest girls. Her smile brightened your day,’” he said. “It sounds so cliche, but it’s true.”
All throughout the afternoon, relatives, family friends and parents with young adults kept arriving, with Rev. Peter Gori, pastor of St. Augustine, occasionally coming out of the church to console mourners lined up on the sidewalk.
Hampstead, N.H., resident Sara Brandolini said Ritzer “was always there for me,” including six years ago when she was coping with the loss of a loved one. Ritzer established a support fund for her.
“She was a sweet girl, lots of hope and compassion,” Brandolini said, adding she wasn’t surprised by the crowd that lined up at St. Augustine Church,
“They’re coming to show their love,” added Brandolini’s boyfriend, John Morano, of Kingston, N.H. “They’re touched. I think they’re going to be here a bit longer tonight.”
There were also those who did not know Ritzer personally, but came in support of a family member, including a group of about eight young women who worked with her 20-year-old brother, Daniel, at Mad Maggie’s Ice Cream in North Andover.
Fogarty, who spent 14 years as a crime scene investigator for the State Police after leaving the teaching profession, said Ritzer’s death had “rocked me.”
“I’m no stranger to tragedy and evil, but this has rocked me to the core,” she said.
“And now someone won’t have her as a mother,” Bunny Monteiro, another one of Ritzer’s preschool teachers, added. “Someone won’t have her as a loving wife. Everyone loses.”
Holding out her cellphone, Fogarty flipped through photo after photo of her and Ritzer together over the last two decades.
She stopped on one from about 17 years ago, showing the two of them in wedding-style dresses. Colleen was 7, and they were both smiling.
“She was in my wedding,” Fogarty said. “She was my flower girl, and she loved every minute of it.”
A funeral Mass for Ritzer will be held today at St. Augustine Church, 43 Essex St., starting at 10 a.m.