SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - A victim of the recent Montecito Mudflow has been remembered for her love of life, family and optimistic view of each day before her.
Josie Gower lost her life January 9, when a violent flow of water, debris and rocks came crashing through her neighborhood in the early morning hours of a quick and powerful storm. The tragic event took 20 lives according to official records but it is said to be 23 by officials who say there will be no more survivors with three missing.
"I have been overwhelmed by the stories of all the lives she touched, she had an amazing way of making everyone around her feel special," said Hayden Gower about his mother.
"My mom brought so much light and positivity. She didn't let anyone or anything let her down and always had a smile on her face no matter what life threw at her. She lived on her terms. If you were lucky enough to be invited into her life, you were in for a good time and a lot of love. She was strong and so full of energy. There was never a dull moment when she was with you," said Gower.
The congregation was filled with friends who often entertained and had social gatherings together, and were surrounded on a regular schedule by laughter, food and humor.
"If anyone was wondering how she could look so young for so long, she told me it was a glass of red wine and plenty of garlic like any true Italian would know," said Gower.
"Even though her life was cut short she lived more in those years than most live in an entire life. I know her amazing spirit will live on in all of us," he said.
Gower noted "My mom's greatest joy was her family."
Then he introduced his sister.
"You were funny, gracious, intelligent, and loving." said Briana Haigh. "I love you mom. The world shines less brightly without you," she said fighting back tears.
She went on to say how much Josie loved her grandchildren and there were countless hours together full of memories. "You were a constant presence around our house. We will miss you every single day," said Haigh.
For years,"you taught me how to turn the smallest of gatherings into the party of the century," said Haigh.
Juliette Castagnola, Josie's niece said "she was everyone's true friend. She met people everywhere. She loved the spotlight but often shined it right back on you."
Stories of the years of social events were also part of her reflections but "I am sure she is holding court at the biggest party Heaven has ever held," said Castagnola.
A longtime friend, Diane Brewer said with Josie she was fascinated by her "vivacious, extraordinary energy. Her contagious smile captivated us."
They had many journeys together, but Brewer looked ahead with all she gained from the deeply bonded friendship.
"What Josie wants from us now is to continue her legacy of living life with love, laughter and never judge others. Support and be kind. Be kind to all," said Brewer. She asked everyone in the church to grab a hand and connect with one another. Then she reminded them of the Josie she knew so dearly. "Her smile made you smile, her energy you could feel, her heart was filled with love, her eyes only saw the good and the times we all had with her were priceless."
Tom La Rovere was also a personal friend with insights. "She sacrificed herself and was extremely generous to others."
He spoke without notes and from the heart as he thought of the times they had together.
"She exhibited traits that we admire as a people. She was one that was always looking forward. It was the here and now for Josie. Which is really the Christian virtue that Jesus taught. Live now. And Josie lived now. She really embraced people." La Rovere said.
Josie's partner Norman Borgatello asked his sister, Joy Donnoly to speak on his behalf. She read a letter that said when you were with Josie, "you knew you were in the presence of a very special person. Life was beautiful."
"In things that really mattered, like loyalty and love of family we were the same," read Donnoly. Josie was an inspiration with an enormous appetite for life."
She ended by saying, "Josie I will be singing your praises until the end of time, love you forever, Norm."
Erin Graffy de Garcia, a local author and historian said the funeral was attended by more than 500 people, many of them standing on the side aisles. She believed it was the largest funeral at the mission since the service for the late Father Virgil Cordano in 2008.
Graffy de Garcia said the community has been bearing a heavy load with a month of fire in December followed by the deadly mudflow this month. A time for coping with the losses along with grieving had yet to take place. This morning was that time to begin the process.
"Her personality represented with what Santa Barbara is like. Sunny and warm and wanting to celebrate. It is a hard loss," said de Garcia.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church Pastor Father Lawrence Seyer recalls seeing Josie at the Christmas Carol event at the church just before the flood event occurred. Mt. Carmel was her parish only a few minutes from her front door.
"She had a love for life," he said.
Putting the tragic loss into religious perspective Seyer said "today she is on the greatest journey of all. She is going from death to life. To be there with God that is ultimately what we are all looking for. Because this life is good, but there is a better life that awaits us."
Watching the disruptive weather from a week ago is has been hard to fathom, "how families have been uprooted. We see what is so good, washed away," said Seyer. But with hope and healing he told those at the funeral mass, "we recognize how important life is. What a fabulous thing, ultimately we know it is something precious that flows from God," said Seyer.
"Let us also cherish life, to prepare us for the life to come. Think about your life right now. Give it meaning and purpose."
Bishop Robert Barron was part of the funeral mass. He said the region is so beautiful but it has gone through suffering in the last several weeks. Bishop Barron says the eyes and the hearts of 5-million Catholics are "turned very much to this region. May be find peace in that solidarity." He gave the final blessing with holy water and incense.
"Now in peace, let us take our sister to the place of final rest," said the Bishop.
Note: After this story aired, we learned Norm Borgatello was in attendance. His statement was read by his sister Joy.