By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
BROOKLYN — A mural of a grizzly bear breaking through a brick wall calls attention to visitors in the BGM High School gym. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the unstoppable spirit of Mollie Tibbetts, whose life was celebrated during a memorial Mass Aug. 26 in the gym.
The 20-year college student, described as a bright light in this farming community of 1,500 people, was abducted and killed last month while jogging just outside Brooklyn. Her disappearance led to a month-long search that drew national attention and hundreds of volunteers determined to bring Mollie home. Farm worker Christhian Rivera, 24, has been charged with first-degree murder. He entered the U.S. illegally seven years ago, a fact that further fueled the immigration debate dividing the nation.
But it was Mollie’s ability to bring out the best in others that brought 1,500 people to the memorial Mass, with Bishop Thomas Zinkula 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 ’17, 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 this way, Bishop Zinkula said at the start of Mass. It’s more important to be present to the family. God is also present with us here; he’s sharing our pain and sorrow. The dying and rising of Jesus Christ is our passage way into eternal life, the bishop said. “Let’s pray Mollie home.”
Mollie was raised in San Francisco and in her mother Laura Calderwood’s hometown of Brooklyn where Mollie loved attending Mass with her grandmother, Judy Calderwood, at St. Patrick Catholic Church. Mollie grew stronger in her faith during high school, said Angie Gritsch, the parish’s director of religious education. Mollie loved kids and wanted to be a child psychologist, Gritsch said. “Her peers looked up to her; she was a mom to everybody. She always had a smile on her face; she always had something good to say about somebody.”
Father Corey Close, pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish, 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 sophomore 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. 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 Mollie 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.
The example Mollie set “has changed me,” he continued. “I want to be a better man, a better priest, a better Catholic now …. I want to live life with the joy and energy she had, which so often I know I am lacking. I do not know why Mollie was taken from us, but I praise God to see how he is changing lives already.”
Giving eulogies after Mass were J.R. Glenn, a teacher of Mollie’s at BGM High; her cousin, Morgan Collum; her brother, Jake; and her dad, Rob. Morgan urged the gathering to do right by Mollie, to share what they are best at with others — kindness, patience, humor or faith, for example. “Don’t be mad at God for taking Mollie from us,” Morgan said, choking up. “Praise God for giving us Mollie in the first place.”
“Mollie’s my hero,” said her dad, Rob. He encouraged the gathering to turn now to celebrating wonderful things – the football team and the wedding the day before of a couple in the assembly who he asked to stand up as everyone applauded. “That’s what Mollie would want,” Rob said. Like his son, Jake, he expressed gratitude for the community support the family received during the intense search for Mollie. He paid tribute to family members and other for their roles in Mollie’s life. He also made a point of affirming Hispanics in the community, saying they are Iowans too, with the same values.
“Mollie turned a mirror on us. She wanted us to see what we liked about ourselves,” Rob said. “Mollie is a composite of all of us.”