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Memorial Mass celebrates life of young Catholic woman found dead in Iowa

A mural of a grizzly bear breaking through a brick wall calls attention to visitors in the BGM High School gym, in Brooklyn, Iowa.

It seemed a fitting metaphor for the unstoppable spirit of Mollie Tibbetts, whose life was celebrated during a memorial Mass held in the gym on 26th August.

The 20-year-old college student, described as a bright light in the farming community of 1,500 people, was abducted and killed in July while jogging just outside of Brooklyn. Her disappearance led to a monthlong search that drew national attention and hundreds of volunteers determined to bring the young college student home.

Farm worker Christhian Rivera, 24, has been charged with first-degree murder. He entered the US illegally seven years ago, a fact that further fuelled the immigration debate dividing the nation.

But it was Tibbetts’ ability to bring out the best in others that brought 1,500 people to the memorial Mass, with Bishop Thomas R. Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, presiding and five priests concelebrating. Adults and youths, Catholics, and non-Catholics, sang in the choir. A section of seats was reserved for the Class of 2017, Mollie’s class. Hugs were exchanged generously in that section and elsewhere in the packed gym.

It’s hard to know what to say when a family loses a loved one in such a way, Bishop Zinkula said as Mass began, noting that it is more important to be present to the family. God also is present with all who mourn Tibbetts’ death and shares their pain and sorrow, he said, and the dying and rising of Jesus offers the faithful the passage way into eternal life. “Let’s pray Mollie home.”

Tibbetts was raised in San Francisco and in her mother Laura Calderwood’s hometown of Brooklyn. It was in the small town where Tibbetts loved attending Mass at St Patrick Church with her grandmother, Judy Calderwood.

Tibbetts grew stronger in her faith during high school, Angie Gritsch, the parish’s director of religious education, said, adding that she loved kids and wanted to be a child psychologist. “Her peers looked up to her; she was a mum to everybody. She always had a smile on her face; she always had something good to say about somebody,” Gritsch said.

Fr Corey Close, St Patrick’s parish priest, led a prayer service after Mollie’s body was found and gave the homily at her memorial Mass. He said he saw Mollie “as a bright, shining light” and himself as “a dim bulb” who will benefit from having gotten to know more about the young woman preparing to enter her second year at the University of Iowa.

In speaking with Mollie’s parents, Fr Close said the topic of the mustard seed came up. His heart was drawn to that passage, which he proclaimed in the Gospel at the memorial Mass.

“I began to see Mollie not as a mustard seed, but as a full-grown bush, full of lush greenery, and, more importantly, full of many, many seeds,” the priest said. “These seeds are the stories we carry with us today, all of your stories of who she was, and how she touched your life, or the life of one whom you loved.”

He said he saw a parallel between Tibbetts and St Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun of extraordinary joy and energy who died at age 24, but left a lasting legacy of faith and inspiration.

“Who can say what good will come of what Mollie has already given the world?…I have already seen how her passing has touched lives, has changed lives. Look at the good God is working among us here today,” Fr Close said.

Picture: Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old college student, described as a bright light in the farming community of Brooklyn, Iowa, was abducted and killed in July while jogging just outside of the town. Her life was celebrated during a memorial Mass on 26th August. (CNS photo/Social Media via Reuters).