ST. JAMES — A somber Terance Dorsey walked into Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Saturday surrounded by family and up to the pearl-white casket where his once vivacious 12-year-old daughter Talaija Dorsey laid.
As his emotions quickly overcame him, he rested his head on top of the girl’s casket, sobbing uncontrollably. A sprawling flower arrangement of white roses and a smiling picture of Talaija sat atop the casket.
Terance Dorsey squeezed inside the small church on River Road along with hundreds of family and community members, many wearing purple, Talaija’s favorite color, to say goodbye one last time to the 12-year-old girl with the beguiling smile whose death some said united a community.
“We are all filled with her spirit, and we are blessed by it,” St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said during the two-hour service.
Following the service, Talaija was laid to rest amid a sea of family and friends in a narrow cemetery a few hundred feet behind the church.
“It’s heartbreaking that we have to do this,” Keantrya Franklin, Talaija’s mother’s cousin, said before the funeral.
Talaija was reported missing from her home on July 1 and her body was found by Martin on July 6 near a cane field on La. 3127 in Vacherie, just miles from her home in the community of St. James.
Her mother’s fiancé, John D. Celestine, 43, has been charged with first-degree murder in Talaija’s death.
“She was just a baby, and for her to be taken away from us like this, it’s not right,” Franklin said.
The family is still searching for answers as to why Celestine, a man who helped raise Talaija, is the main suspect in Talaija’s death, Franklin said.
“For him to do this, we don’t understand why,” she said.
Many mourners arrived hours before the funeral to find the church already full as people gathered from the surrounding area to grieve with the family.
Those unable to get a seat inside watched on the television outside the church that streamed the service.
It was billed as a celebration of Talaija’s life, and the large choir seated behind the pulpit tried their best to lift the spirits of the mourners with passionate and lively songs. Those included one of Talaija’s favorite songs, the gospel hit “Break Every Chain.”
Many close relatives openly wept throughout the service, including some like her godfather, Charles Smith, who had to step outside to compose himself.
Several ornate red, pink and white flower arrangements, many of which were donated, flanked the casket along with the uniform Talaija wore while cheerleading for the Redskin Little League Football team in Donaldsonville.
Following the opening Bible readings and some lively songs, Sheriff Martin walked to the pulpit and declared that he truly feels God led him to Talaija’s body last Sunday after he prayed for a sign.
“It had nothing to do with investigative skills,” he said to roaring cheers and applause.
Despite having never met Talaija before her death, Martin said he knows he, as well as his department and the community, will never forget her.
“I want to say that … the heart and spirit of this child reached out to this community,” Martin said.
The Rev. Samuel Jones, who is related to Talaija, said the family was overwhelmed by all the support and all the people who donated their time and skills for the funeral, including a LaPlace woman who offered to pay for the funeral. Jones did not say if the family took her up on the offer.
Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter @ryanmbroussard.