The ritual of the Roman Catholic Mass provided a salve to the wound felt by more than 1,000 Loyola College students who gathered Tuesday night to remember their friend and classmate, Stephanie Parente.
The 19-year-old Loyola sophomore's green crew jacket was placed at the center of the altar at Alumni Memorial Chapel, and her friends cried, hugged each other and, through music and readings, paid tribute to a young woman whose bright spirit lit up the North Baltimore campus.
Parente was found dead with her family at a Towson hotel on Monday afternoon. In the small Loyola community, Parente stood out -- a member of the men's and women's crew teams, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, and serious student who dreamed of a career in medicine.
"Students today are absolutely devastated," said Alex Hollis, a senior and president of the student government, who sat on the edge of the altar throughout the Mass. "She brought a lot of life to this campus. It's really, really sad to have that taken away from us."
The Loyola chapel began filling up more than hour before Tuesday night's memorial Mass began. By 9 p.m., all the seats were taken. Students stood in the aisles and along the walls and sat on the floor and the altar, beneath a black-and-white photograph of Parente.
Parente's roommates -- the ones who got worried Sunday night when their friend didn't come back to the dorm to study for a chemistry exam and tried, in vain, to reach her -- held hands as they entered the church and took seats in the front row. They read the first two readings and then, through tears, offered the prayers of the faithful.
"For all the young souls that left this world too early, that they may live an everlasting life as guiding angels," one roommate said. Another offered prayers for the parents, William and Betty Parente, and for 11-year-old Catherine. And finally they said a prayer for Stephanie. "You brightened our lives," a friend said, wiping away tears, "and we'll never forget you."
The Mass was officiated by the Loyola president, the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, who told the students that their faith and their sense of community would help them heal and urged them to seek counseling through the college if needed. He said on this day especially he felt like a father to the 3,500 undergraduates at Loyola.
"I can't emphasize enough the way in which we are all wounded by this experience that is unfathomable," he said. "I think that this gathering is a sign of the solidarity and the unity and what's best about Loyola College. This is a very painful journey that all of us are going through together. Let's be signs of hope to one another."
He did not avoid mentioning the strange circumstances of Parente's death. Her family had come from Garden City, N.Y., to visit her in Baltimore for the weekend. On Monday, the bodies of all four family members were found in the Towson Sheraton in what police are calling a murder-suicide.
"She died with the persons who loved her the most in the world even as she was harmed. I have no doubt that the person who harmed her, loved her," Linnane said. "So we gather at this altar to hear the words of hope and consolation because we know the mystery we confront this day will ultimately lead to new hope and new meaning."
Students cried and put their arms around each other throughout the 75-minute Mass, with the greatest outpouring of grief coming at the sign of peace, when they hugged one another and let their tears flow. During the Mass they sang "Lord of All Hopefulness," a traditional Irish melody, and "Amazing Grace."
Then the students filed out of the chapel into the night, where the rain had stopped and the storm had passed. They said the Mass was the beginning of their healing.
"It just shows the strength of the community and that's how we're all going to get through this," said Colin Wheeler, 19, a sophomore from New York and friend of Stephanie. He said he last saw her on Friday night in her dorm room, where she was hanging out with friends, filled with life and joy