Sandy Hook 10 Years Later: Newtown Remembers and Continues to Heal
Faith and community bolster Connecticut town that was forever changed on Dec. 14, 2012.
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Newtown was one of those charming New England towns where everything was normally calm and peaceful. That all changed on Dec. 14, 2012. That day, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook School took the lives of 20 first-graders and six teachers and administrators. It shocked not only the community, but reverberated throughout the country.
In the last 10 years, people have dealt with the tragedy in different ways. Most prefer to maintain privacy. Some have healed in various ways.
Several of the families and children directly affected were parishioners at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown. Msgr. Robert Weiss was the pastor at the time of the tragedy, and, remaining as the pastor, he has seen some changes over the past decade.
“I think that probably every day brings something different,” he told the Register last month. “Certainly the sadness is still there.” Since most of the children’s confirmation would have been last year, it’s really hard on the parents. “Not all the families have remained. A number of the families are leaving the area … so that has changed the nature significantly.”
At the same time, there are indications of healing, he said. “They have led the way for all of us in their sadness. They have developed wonderful foundations for their children. Many are doing so many positive things. There has been healing for them and the community.” Programs that were established have been successful, such as those on safety and dealing with crisis situations.
Earlier this year, while speaking about Sandy Hook in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, tragedy, Msgr. Weiss told the Register, “After Sandy Hook, a lot of people slowed their lives down. Families started reprioritizing their lives. The families realized how important it was to be together.”
New Permanent Memorial
On Nov. 12, survivors of the tragedy, joined by friends, family, first responders, officials and several others, attended a private ceremony that officially opened the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial. Not far from the site of Sandy Hook School, which was razed, the site is peaceful and serene; the memorial is comprised of a circular pool surrounded by a wall engraved with the names of each child, teacher and administrator who perished. The following day, the memorial opened to the public.
Msgr. Weiss said that the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial “has been another positive step and a source of healing, as well.” The site is “very peaceful and calming, beautiful and natural for the Newtown community.”
At that ceremony, JoAnn Bacon, who lost her daughter Charlotte, gave a moving and inspiring reflection. Through an official of the memorial committee, she referred the Register to her speech carried in full by the local newspaper, The Newtown Bee. In part, she said, “The grieving in Newtown continues. Ten years on, and the grieving continues. We grieve lost years and lost memories. We grieve the joyful enthusiasm that once came quickly. We grieve the future we had planned. We grieve not being able to watch our beloved evolve. We grieve our loss of safety. But just as important, our love for those who died continues to grow in unexpected ways — a true love story filled with evolving emotions, trajectories, and dynamics.”
“One does not need two feet on this earth for a love story to continue,” she said. “Love does not wither away or become stagnant due to absence. It grows strong just as the Sycamore tree behind me grows strong.”
Bacon reflected further: “Our personalities, experiences and relationships with the dead guide how we grieve, but the most fundamental need is the same. To hear the name of our beloved on the lips of others. Remembrance allows those left behind to keep their loved ones in the present rather than relegate them to the past.”
“Twenty-six families actively grieve and remember each day in seen and unseen ways,” Bacon observed. “From charitable acts to the unseen whispered ‘I love you’ invoked by a favorite song, a whiff of their shampoo, or the sight of a bird, feather, or leaf in the shape of a heart. A memorial does not negate the need for families to remember their loved ones as individuals — each equal but unique. Yet there is also no denying that we are held together by a violent act. This memorial serves as a remembrance for the whole.”
She added, “We need to do more than choose kindness, love, and compassion. We need to choose truth. Memorials demand that we are grounded in truth. It is a necessary truth-teller. And the truth of Sandy Hook Elementary School is down this hill in a ring that bears 26 names. They are our truth. And we owe them our reverence. This memorial is a beacon for remembrance, and it is a beacon for truth.”
Remembering and Healing
Matthew and Jennifer Hubbard’s two children were in the school that day 10 years ago. Their daughter, Catherine, died. Today, son Fredrick attends college. Jennifer, who writes for Magnificat, founded the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in Newtown to honor her daughter’s love of animals.
The foundation has proven to be one way to cope with tragedy. “It focuses on Catherine’s life and the compassion she had for animals,” Hubbard told the Register. “She loved everything about animals and wanted to take care of them.” She explained how this work makes Catherine’s legacy “positively helping others and impacting their lives. It also has kept me focusing on the goodness in humanity and the hope we have for the future.”
Hubbard further explained, “Our mission is to enrich the lives of all beings by promoting compassion and acceptance.” As executive director, she believes in doing that “tangibly” by teaching people how to care for the animals as well as the wildlife. At the same time, the lives of children and adults are enriched by learning and practicing compassion. She emphasized, “We think that by what we do, compassion can be emulated in everyday life.”
Indeed, since Hubbard founded the sanctuary, 142,000 individuals have been taught with its program, and “we are in 29 Connecticut towns,” she said. “We partner with municipalities and provide support for the pets of older adults and [those in] government-assisted housing.” She explained that because of their small incomes and “uncertain financial times,” many people have to make the choice to feed their pets or take care of their own health. The foundation steps in to help to “free up the senior so the older adult can keep their pet.”
Open to the public, the sanctuary sits on 34 beautiful acres. “Many people have shared with us the sanctuary has been a place of healing for them,” Hubbard said.
Built because of a tragedy, the foundation is helping so many other children, including a third-grader with a learning disability. His participation in the programs “was such a confidence builder” — his mother reported that, in school, he is now reading at his current grade level.
For Hubbard herself, her faith has grown and strengthened. “For me — I can’t speak on behalf of other families — over the past 10 years, I have come to a realization of my faith and in finding a real, personal relationship with God. I learned that authenticity and vulnerability and human relationships are such an important part of our lives; and when we can focus on God’s graces and love, I found that one day you look around and realize you made it. You’re still breathing and moving and fortunate to be surrounded by incredible people that have shared so much of their lives and time and heart, all rooted in God.”
“All the graces of God were all afforded,” she continued, adding that she can recognize when “I’m quiet and still enough that I can see them. Catherine’s dying has really slowed me down and opened my eyes to the abundance God has put in my life — and it’s not worldly things.”
“Tragedy, sorrow — these things waken us. I learned for myself all the things that kept me up at night are not the things that should be keeping me up at night. They could be gone in a minute. The appreciation of the gift and the graces right here is now my priority. I understand that it could all be gone tomorrow. The right here and right now is what’s important. Biblically, that’s what we’re told.”