PEORIA — Randy Simmons loved his students and loved his school.

That was part of the short but emotional message shared by brother-in-law Charlie Lavin at a special all-school Mass held Wednesday morning in the gymnasium of Peoria Notre Dame High School, 5105 N. Sheridan Road. Simmons, the school's beloved principal, was found dead in his Peoria home Tuesday afternoon. Authorities won't specify the cause of death, but no foul play is suspected.

Early Wednesday, many of the school's 800-plus students wandered the halls mostly in stunned silence, some embracing each other in comfort and many echoing the sad refrain, "I can't believe this." The same scenario played out among staff, then later between parents arriving for the special Mass.

Lavin told hundreds of attendees of a conversation last summer with Simmons, who mentioned he would return to Notre Dame for his fourth full academic year as principal. Lavin, with his voice beginning to crack with emotion, recalled that Simmons explained that decision by gushing over his devotion to the school and students.

"Take that with you the rest of your lives," Lavin told students, voice rising. "When you think of Randy, think of that."

Sister Sara Kowal thanked the gathering for coming together, especially for Simmons' wife, Patti, and other family sitting in the front row.

"We surround you, literally and spiritually, with our love and prayers today," Kowal told them.

Bible readings included John 11, in which sisters of Lazarus mourn his death, prompting Jesus to say, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." The Rev. Daniel Jenky, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, referred to that chapter while students and others dabbed their teary eyes with tissues. Jenky also reminded students that "Notre Dame" is French for "Our Mother'' — as in Mary, the mother of Christ.

"Think about it," Jenky said. "Mary was the first to believe in Jesus Christ. She was the first one to welcome Jesus Christ." 

He urged students to strive for Mary's keen faith, as part of the grieving process and beyond.

"Imitate her," Jenky said. "Follow Jesus. Bring people to believe in Him. And within yourselves, have inner peace."

Jenky lauded Simmons as an educator, at Notre Dame as well as an earlier career with Peoria Public Schools.

"He was a great leader and teacher," Jenky said. "This is a great school. But I believe he bought it to a higher level of excellence."

Jenky briefly touched on Simmon's death, comparing it to a riptide — the strong and sudden current that can seize and drag a swimmer out to sea.

"I believe Randy was pulled out to sea by a huge riptide," Jenky said. "Randy was a strong man in many ways. In personal pain and great suffering, he could not handle the riptide."

To that extent, the bishop acknowledged some facets of life — and death — can be hard to understand. He encouraged students to talk to counselors, priests and nuns who would be available after the Mass. 

"But recognize that the wisest teacher is among us as well: Jesus Christ," Jenky said.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.