Mercyhurst College comes together after slaying of student

Time and space transformed.

A time to gather again and return to classes – a sense of routine re-established after a short break.

A place to celebrate evening Mass among peers in Mercyhurst College’s Catholic tradition. Christ the King Chapel offered neither on Sunday night for the Mercyhurst community.

But to an overflowing crowd of hundreds, the college’s wooden chapel and its foyer at the east end of Old Main provided much more during a memorial service for deceased student Jenni-Lyn Watson.

Watson was killed Nov. 19 at her home in Liverpool, N.Y., where she had returned the day before from Mercyhurst’s fall trimester.

As the refrain from “On Eagle’s Wings” came to a close midway through Sunday’s prayer vigil, dozens of students – many of whom barely knew or had never even met Watson – could be heard openly sobbing.

Like he had done four days prior during a prayer service for Watson’s safe return, the Rev. James Piszker, college chaplain, strode across the altar and spoke comforting but painful words.

“The question comes to mind, ‘Was our (Wednesday) prayer in vain? Was our hope misplaced?’” he asked of the assembled.

“I’m here to tell you that neither of those things are true,” Piszker said.

Piszker and other campus personnel have already put forth a full effort to assist students grieving over the gruesome tragedy.

Her death

Watson, a 20-year-old junior dance major, was at her home on the morning of Nov. 19.

New York authorities allege that Steven Pieper, a man she dated on and off for approximately 18 months, arrived at her house that morning and an argument ensued.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Pieper likely killed Watson, carried her body into his Volkswagen that he had backed into the family garage and drove two miles north to Clay Central Park.

There, after a five-day search, New York Police discovered Watson’s remains Saturday morning near an amphitheater.

“Within a very short period of time (after her death, she was) dumped like garbage in Clay Central Park,” Fitzpatrick said at a Nov. 27 news conference.

Pieper, 21, was charged with second-degree murder a few hours after Watson’s body was discovered. Police suspect he acted out of jealousy and anger after Watson broke off the relationship and a year-long engagement in October.

He immediately pleaded not guilty at Saturday’s arraignment and will next appear in Clay town court on Friday.

An autopsy was performed on Watson’s body Sunday, which confirmed her death a homicide, but police are waiting for tissue samples to determine an exact cause of death.

Community efforts

Mere hours after her disappearance became clear to Watson’s family and local police last weekend, word spread rapidly via Facebook to keep watch for a 20-year-old female of approximately 5 feet, 3 inches and 100 pounds.

“She was little, but she was spunky,” said friend and fellow junior dancer Amy Deer. “Her energy was amazing.”

Friends and family attempted to reciprocate that energy during the weeklong search and subsequent mourning period.

Devin Ruic, Watson’s friend and a columnist for The Merciad, began a Facebook group early on titled “MISSING: Jenni-Lyn Watson” that eventually garnered more than 27,000 members.

“It was amazing to see how much one person could be loved,” said Rachel Torgesen, another junior dance classmate and close friend of Watson.

Many friends have already created remembrance slideshows with the wealth of photos Watson had posted to her Facebook and MySpace accounts.

Mercyhurst’s Counseling Center and Campus Ministry are each offering their services to anyone struggling with Watson’s passing.

Students who desired to be at her 11:30 a.m. funeral  Tuesday in the Syracuse area left on a bus from the Performing Arts Center parking lot at 5 a.m.

In addition to the temporary memorial to Watson in Zurn Hall’s lobby, the dance department is selling green ribbons with Watson’s initials on them for a dollar each. Proceeds will  benefit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Mercyhurst President Thomas Gamble, Ph.D., has already established the Jenni-Lyn Watson Memorial Dance Scholarship for future Mercyhurst dancers. Donations can be made at http:// giving.mercyhurst.edu/jennilyn.

Memories of Watson

Watson’s passing presents a difficult and somber road to healing for Mercyhurst’s 70 dance majors and others who knew her.

Hunter, who last watched Watson perform at SoMar Dance Works’ MOVERS & SHAKERS show on Nov. 13, said she believes peace and hope will slowly return to the department and its students.

“Our department is very close, so we have a large family to take care of,” she said, “but dance is a healing art. We’ll keep dancing.”

ETHAN MAGOC

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