While standing in the church aisle at the start of Donna Jeane Norris’ funeral Thursday, a thought struck me.

When wall-to-wall mourners turn out for a funeral in this town, or stand on a chilly day in a long line that winds half a block outdoors, it’s usually because the deceased was young or had held a position of public prominence.

Neither of these were the reason for why so many gathered Thursday at Greenwood’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church to pay their respects.

Donna Jeane was no teenager whose life was cut short, and most of the publicity she received ended after she completed a stellar track career at Greenwood High School, a long time ago.

The reason so many people stood for half an hour or longer to get into the church, and why, after the pews filled up, they stood for another hour and a half during her beautiful service was not because of how Donna Jeane distinguished herself publicly. It was all about how she touched so many people privately.

As a good wife, good mother, good grandmother, good sister, good cousin, good aunt. As a friend to most anyone who crossed her path. As a devoted church member.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I couldn’t believe it when I got the call that Donna Jeane had died in a head-on traffic collision Monday morning. In this profession, you get hardened to such tragic news, but this time was different.

You just aren’t ready for a person “larger than life,” as my wife, Betty Gail, described Donna Jeane, to be yanked away so fast and so unexpectedly. You feel an instant void, and you wonder how it will ever be filled.

I know that feeling was multiplied thousandfold by thousandfold, not just in Greenwood but across Mississippi and beyond.

Most Sundays, I would see Donna Jeane and her husband, Buster, at church. They were a fixture, about halfway back, on the right side of the sanctuary. After the service, she often was one of the last people to leave the church, hanging around to visit with those sitting nearby and those passing by her on their way out. Buster learned not to be in a hurry.

I was out of town last Sunday, but Betty Gail was at church and thought how cute Donna Jeane looked. Not many women at age 71 still get called “cute,” but Donna Jeane wasn’t like most women.

She had a style and youthful enthusiasm that belied her age. She was one of the principal movers in our congregation. She was proud of her Lebanese heritage and being part of the Malouf family, whose positive impact on this community is now into its third generation. And she took a genuine interest in lots of people, keeping up with their joys and sorrows, celebrating with them in good times and reaching out to them in their times of trouble.

She wasn’t shy about spreading Catholic customs around. If you had a child who was struggling physically or emotionally, she recently started giving the mothers a bottle of holy water and instructing them to sprinkle it around in the child’s room. Catholic or not, they probably complied. If Donna Jeane told you to do something, you usually did.

Father Gerard Hurley, the Catholic priest who delivered the eulogy at the funeral Mass, said you always knew where you stood with Donna Jeane. She was not shy about expressing her opinion, whether talking with a waitress or a bishop. But she had the skill of being frank without being off-putting. I guess it’s because you just sensed with Donna Jeane that her honesty came without malice but with a desire to do and promote good.

After Donna Jeane died, they found the devotional she had been reading earlier that morning. She had highlighted a section of it that asked readers to imagine what it will be like on the day they enter heaven:

“Imagine going from a world in which you have suffered and are loved imperfectly into a kingdom in which you are loved perfectly and where all pain has been banished. Imagine seeing God face-to-face and being filled with a joy that you have only tasted on earth. Finally, you are home!

“Brothers and sisters, this is the inheritance that awaits you in heaven. This is also your inheritance right here and right now. God’s dwelling is here already, in the Church, in the beauty of creation, in your loved ones, and in your heart. Never forget who you are: you are a citizen of heaven. Never forget what Jesus has done for you: he has conquered death and opened the gates of heaven. And never forget that God longs to say these words to you even more than you long to hear them: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43)!”

The thousands who miss Donna Jeane take comfort in the certainty that it was no coincidence that she read those words on Monday. It was God’s way — and hers — of reassuring us that the promise of eternal life is real.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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