Hundreds mourn loss of two sisters

St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville could not contain the outpouring of love and grief yesterday for the two sisters killed by a tornado's fury. Hundreds unable to fit into the 49-pew sanctuary stood outside and listened to the words of comfort coming through a speaker on the roof.

More than 1,100 people turned out for the funeral Mass, trying to understand why the promising lives of 23-year-old Colleen Marlatt and 20-year-old Erin Marlatt were cut short.

University of Maryland students and best friends, the young women were leaving school for home Monday when the tornado whipped through, catching their car and throwing it over a dormitory.

Yesterday, parish members, friends and teachers said goodbye, joined by dozens of firefighters and police officers paying respects in the nearly two-hour service to the only daughters of the chief of Clarksville's volunteer fire department.

St. Louis' pastor, Monsignor Joseph L. Luca, reminded mourners that burying a child is one of the most painful experiences for a parent to endure. For F. Patrick Marlatt and his wife, Patricia, it is doubly tragic.

"They must not carry just one precious child, but two," Luca said.

Then he blessed the girls' bodies with baptismal water - noting that the sisters' first trip to church was for baptism.

"Grant them the happiness of everlasting youth," he prayed.

Inside, people packed every corner of the church, even the room set aside for parents with fussy babies. Outside, mourners stood under a blue sky and sang hymns from memory - "We Are Called," "You Are Mine," "Be Not Afraid."

Many were amazed by the strength of the girls' parents, known familiarly as "Mr. Pat" and "Mrs. Pat," who comforted the hundreds visiting this week to console them. F. Patrick Marlatt, who works on the University of Maryland, College Park campus, had seen his daughters moments before the tornado swept them away - had, in fact, been injured himself.

"You wonder why it hit those people," said Mickey Day, chief of the West Friendship volunteer fire department, who has known the family for at least 10 years. "I just don't know how they're even getting up to the fact that they lost their two girls."

Speakers shared yesterday snippets of the sisters' lives, little things that made them who they were.

Colleen, fastidious, always after her younger sister about leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Twenty pairs of shoes in her bedroom - neatly stacked. The one who spent every day and nearly every night in the hospital with Erin as she recovered from brain surgery in January.

Erin, the free spirit, never wanting anyone to worry about her but always worrying about other people. Sure of her values, unconcerned about what others thought of her. The one who made everyone laugh with her easy humor.

Each devoted to the other.

"So young, so good and so full of life," said Luca. "And so we ask: Why, why? Why should this tragedy have to happen to them?

"Honestly, I do not know. Nobody knows."

But, he said, the questions and sorrow are for the living. Erin and Colleen, so full of faith and love, are in a happier place, he told the crowd.

"They have now experienced the joy of never again being separated from each other or the God who loves them," he said. "We mourn for ourselves."

He asked people to learn from the sisters the lesson they took to heart: Value your family - value all you have - while you have it.

"If we were to do that, the memories of Erin and Colleen would live forever," he said.

Among the mourners were dozens of students from Mount de Sales Academy, where Patricia Marlatt teaches. Elizabeth Preston, a senior at the Catonsville school, held a dozen tissues in her hands yesterday as she recalled English class with Mrs. Marlatt last year, when students heard about the sisters and about Erin's recovery from surgery.

On Thursday, she visited her former teacher with classmates. The thought of that visit, as somber people walked out of the church behind two caskets heaped with red roses, made Preston cry yesterday.

"She told us, we were her girls now - that she didn't know what she'd do without us," Preston said.