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Family, friends say farewell to Celina

N.H. girl is recalled as shy, smiling, but beginning to blossom

Celina Cass’s mother, Louisa Noyes, and sister, Kayla Laro, were comforted during yesterday’s memorial service in Canaan, N.H. Celina Cass’s mother, Louisa Noyes, and sister, Kayla Laro, were comforted during yesterday’s memorial service in Canaan, N.H. (Toby Talbot/ Associated Press)
By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2011

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CANAAN, Vt. - One week after 11-year-old Celina Cass’s body was found in a stretch of river a quarter-mile from her home, family and friends of the fifth-grader who was always ready with a smile gathered yesterday to say goodbye.

“Now this victim of evil is an angel among us,’’ said the Rev. Craig Cheney of the North American Martyrs Parish.

Cheney was a speaker at the funeral - which was held in Lancaster, N.H., and open only to family and close friends - and at a remembrance ceremony held at a school in nearby Canaan.

Celina was last seen the night of July 25 in her West Stewartstown, N.H., home. After a weeklong search that involved more than 100 law enforcement officials, including the New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts state police, the FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, divers discovered her body wrapped in a blanket in the Connecticut River, close to a dam.

Autopsy results were inconclusive, and authorities are waiting for a toxicology report to determine a cause of death.

A criminal investigation is ongoing, said Jane Young, New Hampshire senior assistant attorney general, and authorities believe the death is suspicious.

At the afternoon funeral, Cheney spoke of the first vigil in a neighborhood park after Celina disappeared. Residents of the rural community, less than 2 miles from the Canadian border, held candles above their heads to help Celina find her way back to her family.

On the night the girl’s body was discovered, community members held candles in the air once again, he recalled.

“Those candles symbolized a beacon for Celina to come home,’’ Cheney said. “And she did come home.’’

The family and friends, who numbered about 100, made a procession yesterday from the funeral home to Northumberland Cemetery in New Hampshire, where the girl’s cremated remains, contained in a pastel pink urn, were buried next to her grandmother.

Later, in the evening, about 300 members of Celina’s family, school, and community gathered for the remembrance ceremony in the gymnasium of the Canaan School - the same gym where Celina played on the Pee Wee Basketball team - and offered memories and words of comfort about the girl who had left their lives too soon.

Natalie Purrington, a classmate, spoke through tears about the friend who always made her smile. Celina was taller than both of her fourth-grade teachers, Natalie recalled, and sometimes felt like she did not fit in at school. But she was a kind person who knew how to comfort a friend.

“She was always the type of person to cheer you up,’’ Natalie said.

Paula Doyon was Celina’s basketball coach. While most friends and family recall Celina as a quiet, shy girl, Doyon said she had the chance to see a different side of the fifth-grader, a girl who, through sports, had just begun to feel more comfortable in her own skin, to be competitive, and to make friends.

She recalled one of the biggest games of the past season: It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the Canaan team was pitted against rival Groveton. All the girls were anxious, until Celina came into the locker room wearing a giant shamrock in her hair and bright green socks.

“I feel that basketball brought Celina out of her shell,’’ Doyon said.

Those gathered at the remembrance ceremony watched a slideshow, with pictures of Celina swimming, dressing up for Halloween, playing basketball, and pulling on a rope in a game of tug-of-war. In each photo, she was smiling.

Kirsten Lyons, a friend of the family, told the audience that Celina was a memorable child who touched everyone with whom she came in contact.

“Your dreams of fancy shoes, clothes with rainbows and peace signs, and hats that show your fashion sense, have been set in our memories forever,’’ Lyons said.

She also said she will most miss Celina’s beautiful smile and her willingness to trust in others.

“Celina, you are our clouds, our fog, and our rain,’’ Lyons said. “But most of all, you will always be our sunshine.’’

About 20 miles south of the gymnasium, the sun of a glorious summer day blazed onto Celina’s grave site, which sat at the back of the cemetery, just a few steps from the Connecticut River.

The grave was unmarked - a headstone will be placed later - but the site was recognizable by a halo of daisy, carnation, and rose bouquets in every shade of pink.

Pink, of course, was her favorite color.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.