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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

Community celebrates mass to remember loss of first-year students

Thousands of members of the Notre Dame community gathered Tuesday night to remember first-year students Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas in a mass held in Notre Dame Stadium. Both students passed away early Saturday morning after being hit by a car.

University President Fr. John Jenkins said Mass Tuesday night in the stadium to remember first-year students Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas.
University President Fr. John Jenkins said mass Tuesday night in the stadium to remember first-year students Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas.

Espinel, originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, lived in Badin Hall and planned to study economics. Rojas, from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, lived in Cavanaugh Hall. She intended to study in the Mendoza College of Business.

The community also held in prayer sophomore Eduardo Jose Elias Calderon, who was injured in the crash and remains hospitalized.

Family members and friends of Espinel and Rojas traveled to Notre Dame and attended the mass. Others attended from Bolivia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic through a live stream of the service.

Vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding welcomed the community to the memorial service.

“We are grateful for your presence as we gather to pray for the eternal rest of two members of the class of 2024,” she said. “We believe that God is holding them gently and in immeasurable love.”

University President Fr. John Jenkins presided at the mass, first thanking the families of the two students for traveling to campus. The mass began somberly as Jenkins reflected on the tragedy that occurred Saturday morning.

“Olivia and Valeria were with us for too short a time,” he said. “But I’ve heard from their friends, their teachers and their families that they embraced Notre Dame and made it their home. We now gather to remember and pray for these two friends, students, classmates and family members who have been taken from us so suddenly, so soon.”

Director of Campus Ministry Fr. Pete McCormick delivered the homily at the service. He acknowledged the tragedy that had shaken the community, noting “the hardship that comes from losing two members of our Notre Dame family to an untimely death.”

McCormick’s homily focused on honoring how Espinel and Rojas deeply valued friendship and family. He read from papers each student had written earlier in the semester about how to live a good life and celebrated the friendship between the two young women.

“To think that this relationship was somehow simply limited between Valeria and Olivia would be a big mistake,” McCormick said. “Together they built upon each other’s strengths to create a network of great friends and meaningful relationships.”

McCormick said sorrow is appropriate in response to these students’ deaths, but he invited the congregation to trust in God’s mercy.

“We commend these two sisters of ours to a God who makes all things new — grateful for their lives, thankful for the ways that God has worked through them to give us a clear sense of heaven itself,” he said. “We now commend our sisters to eternal rest.”

The mass included a mix of Spanish and English, including music in Spanish provided by Coro Primavera, the University’s Spanish-language choir. The rectors of Cavanaugh Hall and Badin Hall, Jo Cecilio and Sr. Susan Sisko, respectively, offered bilingual prayers of the faithful.

To remember the light of Espinel and Rojas, those gathered in the congregation turned on their flashlights on their phones.

At the mass’ conclusion, McCormick asked all those gathered to turn on their phone flashlights “as a way of reflecting back the light that Valeria and Olivia have shown to us.” As lights illuminated the stadium, McCormick addressed the two students’ families.

“Family members, we have been blessed to walk among the lights of your two daughters,” he said. “Know that while this day may pass and memories of this particular moment may fade, know that your daughters will walk with us and our community forever.”