MATTYDALE, N.Y. – The Rev. Francis Pompei leaned forward and peered over his thick glasses as he spoke at a funeral Mass for a 20-year-old college student killed during Thanksgiving break.
"Jenni-Lyn, God wishes to dance with you," Pompei said in his homily Wednesday. "Enjoy."
Jenni-Lyn Watson, a devotee of dance, was remembered for her vibrant personality during a 90-minute service in a packed St. Margaret's Parish in the northern suburbs of Syracuse. Those in attendance included two busloads of students from Mercyhurst College, the Erie, Pa., school where Watson studied dance. Some had to watch the service from a gym adjacent to the sanctuary.
"It's been difficult on campus. She was almost the public angel," said Monsignor David Rubino, a Mercyhurst official. "It's not losing a student. It's losing a family member. It's a tight-knit family community. Everybody knows everybody. Tonight the streets of heaven have one more."
Watson's body was found Saturday morning in woods near her home in the Syracuse suburb of Clay, N.Y. Hours later, police charged 21-year-old Steven Pieper, of Liverpool, with murder. Authorities say the two, who graduated in the same class at Liverpool High School, had dated and that Watson had tried to break up with him in October.
Police believe Watson was killed at her parents' home on Nov. 19, after she had returned from Mercyhurst for Thanksgiving break.
After Watson disappeared, scores of law-enforcement officers and search-and-rescue personnel scoured the woods near the Watson home. Volunteers handed out thousands of fliers, held vigils, started websites, and in Watson's peaceful neighborhood yellow ribbons were attached to virtually every pole and street sign. A team of searchers found Watson's body eight days after she disappeared.
Pompei asked the searchers among the mourners to stand during the service, and they were applauded.
"She was giving hope to people who had lost loved ones," Pompei said as he turned to read a letter from a woman who had been touched by the response to Watson's disappearance. "There are people in this world who do care. The feeling that Jenni-Lyn has given me — I will forever be grateful."
Pompei also read a poignant verse that Watson had written but had never shown her parents. Her mother discovered it while going through her daughter's belongings: "How do your eyes know when to cry? Through one's eyes you can see right to the soul. Why do we cover our eyes when we cry? Perhaps to stop the tears."
"Thank you for all you've given me," Pompei said. "Thank you for the words ... to give hope to your mom, dad and sister. You give us relief in those dark moments when we miss you."
Watson's parents and her sister lit a candle at the start of the service as many hugged, fighting back tears. After the homily, a man and woman dressed in white performed an interpretive dance around the casket, clasping hands at the end to form an arch over it as they walked away.
Mourners entered the church in a driving rain and departed for the cemetery with the season's first snow gently falling.
Meanwhile, Pieper is being held without bail until a county judge rules on it. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said his office will argue against any bail.