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Newtown One Year Later: The Long Road to Hope and Healing


John Burger - published on 11/26/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Choosing not to have any public ceremonies, the small community is preparing to weather the first anniversary of the shooting that took the lives of twenty children and six teachers.

The official report of the investigation into last December’s Connecticut school massacre, released yesterday, was perhaps only the first of a series of bitter reminders that will take place over the coming month.

Thanksgiving Day will be another, when dinner tables in 20 Newtown homes each will have an empty seat. And then the actual anniversary of the shooting on Dec. 14 – followed, of course, by Christmas, a feast so closely identified with childhood, innocence and joy.

But there have also been other “triggers,” in the phrasing of the local Catholic pastor, that awaken emotions and affect the behavior of people affected by the tragedy.

“There was upset over this video [game] that came out based on the Sandy Hook tragedy,” said Msgr. Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Newtown, which buried eight of the children killed last Advent, “and we’re facing the release of the 911 tapes. All those things are just triggers, and it plays itself out in people’s behaviors.”

Families of the victims are entering what might be the most difficult time since the massacre. In yesterday’s report, Stephen Sedensky, the State’s Attorney for the District of Danbury, found that 20-year-old Adam Lanza acted alone when he fatally shot his mother at their home in Newtown and then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School and took the lives of 20 first-graders and six teachers. He ended his killing spree by taking his own life.

For Newtown, it’s been a year of grief and anguished questioning. For St. Rose of Lima, which had far more funerals than the community’s other houses of worship, it’s also been a year of faith, prayer and healing. The community is hoping to be able to mark the first anniversary in peace, out of the media spotlight. There will be no public ceremonies.

Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, the diocese that includes Newtown, will offer a Mass of Remembrance at St. Rose on Dec. 14 at 9:30am, the time when the shooting began one year earlier. The parish will dedicate a bell that was struck in honor of the victims, inscribed with words from the Gospel of St. John: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.”

That evening, following a “living Nativity” play, the parish will dedicate a sculpture in front of its school. The “Angel of Hope” will be “placed in front of our school to protect our students,” Msgr. Weiss wrote in a recent church bulletin.

“Where Else Do You Turn?”

The parish is not relying on the Angel of Hope alone to protect students. As in other schools nationwide in the wake of similar tragedies, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, security measures have been bolstered at St. Rose. But it’s safe to say that the theological virtues of Hope and Faith are protecting not only students, but all parishioners from a kind of despair.

“The community is still pretty fragile,” Msgr. Weiss said in an interview on Nov. 22. “There’s still a heaviness here; still a sadness, certainly, in the community. “We’re all at different stages of the grief process. The anger has certainly settled in and has taken a variety of directions. All the things we were told by professionals who have been through these traumas before have been happening.” There has been an increase in “domestic situations,” for example, and “some marital issues that have developed as a result of this,” he said. “I’m not saying we’ve had a huge increase in domestic violence here [but] there’s certainly been evidence that the domestic calls the police are receiving have increased.” Arrests for DUIs also are up.

He said there was already stress in the community because of a poor economy “and everything else going on in the world,” but that the school shooting “certainly has increased the stress. You see an increase of people on prescription drugs; you see an increase with some people using alcohol.”

At St. Rose, he also sees a continued faith-based response to the massacre – something, certainly, that takes center stage after a tragedy but which is subject to diminishment over time.
“Many of the [victims’] families from our parish are in church,” he said. “Their children are taking religious education; their siblings and other children who survived are taking religious ed classes. The faith has not gone away after the tragedy. … It’s still very strong here in the community.”

Pam Arsenault, director of religious education, sees evidence of that as well. “There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that we don’t have someone calling, saying, ‘I’d like all my children baptized,’ and coming back to the faith and coming back to faith practice,” Arsenault said. “People come to realize how important faith is.”

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