NEWTOWN, Conn.— Reeling from Friday’s tragic killing of 26 people, including 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary, residents of this quaint New England town flocked to their churches Sunday to seek comfort and solace from the worst mass slaughter of children in the country’s history.
“This has been a weekend like no other I have known…Twenty families anxiously awaiting word of their missing children, all of whom were killed.” Kathleen E. Adams-Shepherd, the rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, recalled in a somber morning sermon. “Some people say this is God’s will. I’m not one.”
Adams-Shepherd was one of many religious leaders throughout the town, the country and beyond that struggled to make sense of the tragedy. Down the street, a church member at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church –where the families of half of the slain children were parishioners -- read out a message of prayer from Pope Benedict XVI, while monsignor Msgr. Jerald A. Doyle, told hundreds of parishioners who crammed into the church that the world outside has not forgotten them.
“You are not alone,” he said. “The entire believing community, the diocese and beyond, is praying that that word [of Jesus Christ] will come and will take root in your hearts.”
But the midday mass at the church, which has become an epicenter of this town’s mourning, was interrupted and worshipers evacuated when someone called in a threat.
Around noon, a person called the church and, according to a Connecticut State trooper, said, “I’m going to kill everyone there. My friend didn’t finish the job.” Shortly after the call was received, a trooper interrupted Monseignor Weiss during an interview with a Washington Post reporter. “Father, we’re taking this as a credible threat. We need to evacuate the church,” the trooper said.
Weiss helped lead the evacuation, and the church emptied without incident. Afterward, SWAT officers in military-style clothing entered to search the church, but found nothing.
St. Rose had been open 24 hours daily, but after the threat and sweep, the church was locked and evening mass was canceled.
Police say that on Friday, Adam Lanza, 20 shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, to death then drove to Sandy Hook, where he shot out a pane of glass and entered the school at 9:30 a.m. He used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 children and six adults inside the school, then shot himself to death with a pistol.
The tragedy has placed religion at the center of the town’s life. A hand-drawn sign at the Interstate I-84 off-ramp reads “Pray for Newtown.”
St. Rose of Lima, has emerged as a kind of central meeting place for mourners seeking for consolation and reporters seeking to chronicle their suffering for audiences around the world. It was here on Saturday, that Olivia and Tess Mubarek, 12-year-old twins who had lost their former teachers in the shooting, came to release a bouquet of 26 gold and blue balloons.
On Friday, a spill over crowd of several hundred residents converged on the church for a vigil. “In the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, I ask 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,” according to a message from Pope Benedict XVI that was read out to parishioners.
In the hours following Friday’s shootings, the area’s priests, rabbis and pastors, have tended to grieving families.
Rabbi Shaul Praver, of the Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, spent most of the day with Veronique Pozner, whose son, Noah, was slain. “Veronique was very shaken and she needed a lot of comfort and didn’t quite know what to do with her self,” he told reporters. “We just had to tell her to take a deep breath and you don’t have to plan your life right now. Just take it slow, one day at a time.”
Adams-Shepherd said she headed off to the town’s fire station – where parents awaited word of their children’s fate — to offer solace to the parents of Benjamin Wheeler, 6, who was gunned down with his classmates. She also prayed with the parents of another victim, Madeleine Hsu, 6, who did not belong to any of the community’s churches, and has been preparing a funeral for the girl at the church.
“I’ve been with the Wheelers who lost cute little Ben, and also with a couple I met and prayed with on Friday who lost their little Maddie and who had no church to go to.” During a visit Saturday to the Wheeler family’s home, she heard a crisis counselor seek to comfort the grieving parents by “telling them that it’s not the quantity of life so much of the quality. Six years isn’t long enough.”
Adams-Shepherd said the killings cut a wide emotional swath across the community, touching virtually every family in some way. Her own son, a firefighter, who was among the first responders is “struggling” to cope with the emotional toll.
On Sunday, she urged parishioners to pray for all those who had suffered as a result of Lanza’s killing spree, but also to remember the Lanza family in their prayers.
“Was God absent from our world on Friday? Indeed, not,” she said. “Have we been shaken deeply? Yes. Have there been amazing signs of hope for us. Yes. Out of the absolutely devastating scene that has emerged, over and over, the sight of heroes and heroines — teachers, administrators, first responders — running head long into the site of a shooter to protect our most beloved children. Some of those teachers and administrators gave their lives to save lives.”
Just this morning, Adams-Shepherd received an e-mail from a parishioner who had lost an 18-month old-child 26 years ago. When the child’s father died, she moved the child’s coffin next to his, leaving her in possession of an empty child’s burial plot. She wanted to offer it to one of the slain children. “These are the things that people are doing, and offering, those are the pieces of light that surround [us]. It’s not all dark.”
Staff writer Anne V. Hull contributed to this report.