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Newtown, Conn., grieves over massacre at elementary school

Mourners pack a Catholic church in Newtown, Conn., to grieve for 20 children and 6 adults shot dead at an elementary school.

December 14, 2012|By Tina Susman and Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners gather inside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., to mourn the victims of the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Mourners gather inside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.,… (Andrew Gombert, Pool Photo )

NEWTOWN, CONN. — How could this happen? And why? Msgr. Robert Weiss could offer limited comfort to the afflicted citizens of this traumatized New England town in the aftermath of an unimaginable slaughter.

"We know there is no answer," Weiss told an overflow crowd Friday evening at a wrenching memorial service at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. Earlier, he had spent five hours inside a fire station next to Sandy Hook Elementary School with the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of slain children.

One mother said her little girl was to have played an angel in the Christmas pageant. Another little girl had chosen the dress she would wear at her upcoming Communion. A third mother whose daughter was slain held her young son close and said, "You know what? She's never going to have to suffer in this world again."

"When I think I baptized some of these children …" Weiss said, his voice trailing off.

Inside that firehouse, he recalled, where loved ones were trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, the room throbbed with a palpable sense of devastation. "Someone's life was broken," he said. "Someone's guts were just ripped out."

"What do you say to those parents?" said Weiss, who was looking forward to the first Communion of some of the children. "Hey, they're my family too."

During the memorial, Weiss noted that there were 26 candles lit at the altar for those killed at the school. But he noted that 28 people died Friday, including the gunman and a woman presumed to be his mother.

The school's well-loved principal, Dawn Hochsprung, 47, who tweeted lively updates about the school's doings and had recently instituted a new campus security protocol, was reportedly among the dead.

Weiss' homily focused on the littlest victims, the children, believed to be 5 to 10 years old.

"We have 20 new saints, 20 new saints today," Weiss said. And then, in what felt like a little miracle amid the sadness, he elicited a chuckle from parishioners when he said about the six slain adults: "I don't know about the adults. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt."

At times, this man who had spent hours comforting his stunned parishioners choked up himself and expressed the universal disbelief that such a horrible thing could happen in a "perfect" place like Newtown.

"Perfect?" Weiss said. "Obviously, today we found out no."

The crowd sat mostly in silence; no sobs or crying pierced the quiet, perhaps a sign of how numb people felt. A man knelt on the floor behind the last row of pews and rested his head in his hands. A teenage girl laid her head on a friend's shoulder.

Afterward, people slowly filed out, not speaking, many heading across the church parking lot to a statue of the Virgin Mary to light candles.

"Today, I had to compose myself for the kids," said Nancy Muniz, a preschool teacher who had driven to Newtown from White Plains, N.Y., with her husband, Arturo Bravo, after hearing about the memorial. "I had to take a minute just to compose myself and get through the day.

Bravo said it never occurred to him that elementary schoolchildren could be victimized in such a manner. "It didn't even cross my mind. When I found that out, it broke my heart," he said.

Candles flickered in front of the statue, where some people simply stood clutching one another and staring at the shrine, seemingly oblivious to the frigid air.

Inside the church entry hall, people were scrawling notes on white boards placed on easels. "I pray for the kids like me that do not deserve that," a girl named Victoria Duarte wrote. "Rest easy, angels," another message said. One note was signed from "the Sikh community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin," where a gunman killed six people in August.

An hour after the 7 p.m. memorial ended, the church still was full, with people sitting quietly in the pews or chatting among themselves.

"There's too much violence in this country," Weiss had said. "Violence, violence, violence. And it does infect the minds of some."

And he told them what everybody here knows: "You know, life has been changed forever here in Newtown. Forever."

Susman reported from Newtown and Abcarian from Los Angeles.

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