By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — ANDOVER — Hours after consoling and praying with the grief-stricken family of Colleen Ritzer at their home, the Rev. Peter Gori fought back tears himself last night as he grappled with the horror of her death.
Tears, because words fail everyone at a time like this, said the pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Andover — where Ritzer’s parents were married more than a quarter-century ago and where Ritzer and her two younger siblings were baptized and confirmed.
As Ritzer’s family, her religious community and the town of Andover as a whole struggled with the death of the bright and caring young woman, Gori said it’s impossible to make sense of the “horrible, sad, painful loss.”
“I wish you could, but you can’t. It’s bigger than our ability to make sense of,” Gori said. “It’s just totally wrong by every civilized standard and every drive there is.”
Gori prayed for Ritzer and her family at the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Augustine yesterday, before heading to their home on Dascomb Road to be by their side. The home was filled with members of their extended family, with more relatives expected to arrive from Vermont, where Ritzer’s father, Thomas, was raised.
Parents Thomas and Peggie Ritzer reeled from the shock and sought answers, Gori said. He offered comfort and the knowledge that the community was there for them and grieving with them.
“There is no rule book for this sort of thing,” Gori said. “I let them know they were in our prayers and our compassion. If anything, what can make a terrible situation worse even is thinking you are alone in this. To be present for people suffering like this is a source of strength. ... It’s more important for them to be surrounded by love and caring that’s soothing for her parents and brother and sister.”
Gori said the entire Ritzer family has been active members of St. Augustine for years, starting with Ritzer’s grandparents, Anne Martellucci, who still lives in Andover, and her late husband, Paul. The Martelluccis raised five children in Andover.
Their daughter, Peggie, married Thomas Ritzer in 1987 at St. Augustine. The couple also settled in Andover, where they raised three children at their home on Dascomb Road.
Colleen Ritzer was the couple’s oldest. They also have a 20-year-old son, Daniel, and a daughter, Laura, who is a student at Andover High School. The children all attended religious education classes at St. Augustine, with Laura Ritzer the last to make her confirmation last year.
In Colleen Ritzer’s 2007 Andover High School yearbook, Peggie and Thomas Ritzer posted this message next to a baby photo of their daughter: “You are our shining star, our first born. May your future bring you as much joy and happiness as you have brought us. Keep smiling.”
Ritzer’s parents said their oldest daughter put her entire self into her passion for teaching. And while Gori hesitated to speculate, he said her gift for helping others may have unknowingly led to tragedy.
“Anybody who puts themselves out to be helpful to people is identifiable, and it does bring with it a sort of vulnerability,” he said. “But you can’t really help someone without being vulnerable.”
Even though Ritzer was so young, Gori said, the fact that she was a teacher allowed her to touch the lives of more people than the typical 24-year-old.
“Because she had the opportunity to do that in her profession, she reached a lot of people,” he said. “It’s just a horrible, sad, painful loss for her family and for countless children who would have benefited.”
But Gori said if there’s anything the community can take from Ritzer’s death it is that it “forces us to shine a very bright light on those qualities of her life.”
“She knew what she was doing and was very genuine about it and dedicated and willing to help others,” he said. “Hopefully, she will still inspire us — even in the midst of this horror of her death — to do what we can to be the best that we can in service to others.”