NEWTOWN, Conn. — Nothing seemed different about the well-traveled two-lane route leading into this Connecticut community on Dec. 15. Newtown looked for all intents and purposes like the typical scenic, small New England town — the way it always did.
The turn at the town’s landmark flagpole quickly conducted local traffic past St. Rose of Lima Church to Interstate 8 a couple hundred yards further on, then into the village of Sandy Hook.
Nothing on the main road looked unusual, except for the big, hand-lettered sign in front of a business on the way into town that said, "Just Say a Prayer."
That is exactly what people were doing as they silently entered St. Rose all day. They went there to pray and remember the victims of the horrible-beyond-words tragedy that took place a short distance down the road the day before, on Dec. 14, in Sandy Hook School, where 20 of the elementary school’s youngest children and six adults were massacred by a lone gunman.
Many people found consolation through coming to St. Rose, the only Catholic church in town and one that has a very large congregation, many of them young families. Several of the victims were members of the parish.
That Saturday morning and afternoon, people continued to pour in; many came to offer prayers. Twenty-six votive candles lined the top of the altar, one for each child and adult who died in the school. Directly behind them, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the tabernacle. To the side, a picture of the Sacred Heart also reminded people of the Lord’s presence.
Nearly every single person remained kneeling in prayer.
The air was solemn, sad, yet there was a certain peace in the church. No matter who was there — adults, young children and teens with their families, husbands and wives, single women, elderly couples — the silence was seamless. Every moment was filled with a solemn hush that was never broken.
No one said a word. Even those shedding tears did so silently.
Draped over the Advent wreath in the sanctuary, a stole-like purple cloth had a single word on it: "hope." Meant for Advent, it was an added word of solace here.
People silently walked to the side transept to light scores of votive candles lined up before an image of the Holy Family. People knelt before Mary, with Jesus sleeping peacefully in her arms, as Joseph stood by their side. Surely they prayed for the Holy Family to console all the grieving families and parishioners.
So much in the church took on added meaning and significance at this time, like the plaque on the wall of the Holy Family shrine proclaiming, "Perpetual Memorial Honoring the Sanctity of Human & Family Life."
Near them stood St. Anne, who surely knows a grandmother’s heart at this time, especially those grieving the loss of a grandchild at Sandy Hook School, and the church’s patron, St. Rose of Lima, embracing a crucifix, as so many families in the church and town must do now.
A Pastor’s Presence
Msgr. Robert Weiss, the parish’s longtime pastor, had his full attention and presence with grieving families in the rectory. The day before, when he went to the school, he spoke briefly with two television stations.
Many victims were from his parish, he said. One child had been excited to be playing an angel in St. Rose’s upcoming Christmas pageant, another to be making first holy Communion this year. Many of the slain children were preparing for their first Communion.
"If we work together, good things can happen," Msgr. Weiss concluded in the midst of the tragic situation.
In the midst of the shattered community’s anguish, good things were evident that Saturday. People steadily flooded into the church. Many parishioners, their hearts and minds obviously sorrowing, preferred not to talk or share thoughts with anyone.
A few did pause for a moment to share how they came to be a part of support and solidarity.
Parishioner Eileen Byrnes described how during the memorial Mass the night of the massacre "every seat was taken, and people were three-deep in the aisles. Hundreds more were outside singing Silent Night."
"The Catholic community was coming together," she said. "It was faith in action."
Several people stopped by the impromptu shrine set up on the lawn in front of the church or to pray by the shrine of the Blessed Mother nearby.
Dan Hale and his daughter Sarah, a freshman in high school, drove from New Hartford, Conn., to pray for the victims even though they knew no one in town.
"We wanted to share our feelings," said Sarah.
"I can’t fathom what families are going through," said her father.
The Hales were "turning to prayer and God," added Sarah, "and also donating to those families."
Steve Lachioma and his wife, Laurie, drove from Newburgh, N.Y., to come to St. Rose. He reminisced how he had grown up in Newtown, how his grandparents lived here, how every year he and his wife come back to the town to visit, eat at the diner and see the lights along Main Street.
"My wife and I knew we had to be here and say prayers at the church," he said. "Where else would you go?" They also wanted to light a candle and lay a wreath.
Parishioner Tom Kelleher and his three young daughters — one of whom is a student at Sandy Hook School — came to the Friday night Mass and again Saturday afternoon to "pray for the people who lost children and the teachers who lost their lives," he said. The girls were quiet and sad.
Non-parishioners came as well. Jennifer Derrickson said she was not a practicing Catholic, but that, in this tragic situation, "This is where I turned," she shared, looking back and through the church’s glass doors.
Amy Rothenbacker, who said she is Jewish, came to pray with her stepdaughter Sarah Negron. She was familiar with the church, having been here before; she has many friends in this community and knows Msgr. Weiss. She said many of the slain children were baptized here.
"At times like this, I come here to pray," she said. Sarah agreed.
Words of Condolence
Boards that had been set up in the vestibule were covered with messages of condolence and prayer.
"May God give you strength to see you through this tragedy," wrote the Fitzsimons family.
"May God hold you so tightly. May our community and nation come together to prevent this from happening again. You are all angels, and we need to honor you with our actions," another read.
Condolences and prayers came from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who until this year was the bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., in which St. Rose is located.
"I am profoundly saddened by this terrible tragedy, and my heart goes out to the parents who lost their children and to a grieving community," said Archbishop Lori in a statement from Rome when he learned of the tragedy. "I will continue to pray for all those affected by this unspeakable tragedy, and I remember in a special way St. Rose of Lima parish, which I visited so often and remember with deep love and respect."
Msgr. Jerald Doyle, Bridgeport’s diocesan administrator until a new bishop is appointed, also extended prayers and condolences. Msgr. Doyle said the diocese was ready to assist the Newtown community, especially those directly affected by this tragedy, with whatever resources the diocese can offer, including counselors from Catholic Charities.
Other parishes, particularly those nearby, immediately offered continuing prayer. One was 15 miles down the road at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, another of the diocese’s largest parishes and one that also has many young families.
Father Brian Gannon, the pastor, began having quiet adoration of the holy Eucharist after all Masses beginning on Saturday afternoon, with a community Rosary prayed at 7 and 8pm and adoration after Sunday Masses.
"It’s a time to turn back to Our Lord because only he can provide us the strength and consolation that our hearts crave at this time," he said.
Father Gannon said that what happened in Newtown "is beyond horrific. It is unimaginable the agony that our brothers and sisters in Newtown are experiencing as they grieve the agonizing loss of their children and loved ones, so pure and innocent in the beginnings of life."
He said the "best response we can have is our prayers and helping our children find consolation and strength in the infinite, overwhelming love of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our Lord shows us from the cross the infinite love, mercy and compassion that he maintains for us at every moment, that the Good Shepherd’s passionate desire is to keep us close to him for constant reassurance of his healing power through holy Mass every Sunday."
The Church community is the rock for Catholics at times like this, indeed at all times, Father Gannon reminded.
"Our Lord gives us the holy gift of the Church through which we can find his consoling words and presence in the holy Eucharist and his consoling mercy in confession," he explained. "Through the holy gift of the Church and the community the Church provides for us, we can console one another through that strength that God provides us through his holy Church."
There is more that Catholics should add now, especially to help their children and families, Father Gannon said. In the warm embraces parents will give their children in the aftermath of the horror, he suggested, "Gather them together for family prayer every day, the Rosary if possible, to strengthen them in their desire to know and seek consolation from Our Lord, who alone heals the anguish of our hearts."
Bishops’ and Pope’s Anguish
Upon his return from Rome on Dec. 15, Archbishop Lori sent a personal message to be read at all Sunday Masses at St. Rose.
He told everyone how, along with the nation and world, he was "shocked and horrified to learn of what had taken place in Newtown so suddenly and terribly" when he was in Rome.
"Since that moment, my heart has been heavy, and I can’t stop thinking about everyone in Newtown, especially the victims, the children and their families," Archbishop Lori continued. "So I just wanted to say very sincerely and simply that I am close to all of you in my thoughts and prayers right now.
"Coming at this time of year, so close to Christmas, the tragedy is all the more difficult to bear. I can only say that, especially for the sake of the victims and their families, we cannot allow ourselves to lose hope, but, indeed, now more than ever, must strengthen one another through our friendships in Christ and our unity of faith in him and his resurrection."
Archbishop Lori shared the words of Blessed John Paul II which had been present in his own mind: "To receive Jesus Christ means believing that in the history of humanity, even though it is marked by evil and suffering, the final word belongs to life and to love, because God came to dwell among us, so we might dwell in him."
Archbishop Lori told everyone, "Let us not forget that, as we read in St. John’s Gospel, ‘The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’"
"Our lives will never be the same," he said. "But neither will we have to face a single day without the strength and peace that only Christ can give to us. In that strength and in that peace I am very much united with you today."
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also offered prayers and sympathy in a Dec. 14 statement: "The tragedy of innocent people dying through violence shatters the peace of all. At this time, we pledge especially our prayerful support to the Diocese of Bridgeport and the community of Newtown as they cope with this almost unbearable sorrow. We pray that the peace that passes understanding be with them as they deal with the injuries they have sustained and with the deaths of their beautiful children.
"Once again we speak against the culture of violence infecting our country, even as we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace at Christmas. All of us are called to work for peace in our homes, our streets and our world, now more than ever. In the shadow of this shooting, may we know that God’s sacrificial love sustains us, and may those pained so deeply by this tragedy experience that care in their own hearts."
Pope Benedict XVI was quickly informed of the shootings and asked Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to convey "his heartfelt grief and the assurance of this closeness in prayer to the victims and their families and to all affected by the shocking event," said the Holy See’s secretary of state. "In the aftermath of this senseless tragedy," the Holy Father "asks God, our Father, to console all those who mourn and to sustain the entire community with the spiritual strength which triumphs over violence by the power of forgiveness, hope and reconciling love."
At his Angelus address on Dec. 16, before an audience that filled St. Peter’s Square, Benedict again spoke about the tragedy.
"I was deeply saddened by Friday’s senseless violence in Newtown, Conn.," said the Holy Father, speaking in English. "I assure the families of the victims, especially those who lost a child, of my closeness in prayer. May the God of consolation touch their hearts and ease their pain. During this Advent season, let us dedicate ourselves more fervently to prayer and to acts of peace."
"Upon those affected by this tragedy," and upon each one, Benedict invoked "God’s abundant blessings."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.