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Newtown’s Long Journey



John Burger - published on 12/08/13

Parish that lost eight children in Sandy Hook school shooting still trying to bring the Light of Christ one year later.
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Adam Lanza killed his own mother, 20 school children, six teachers and administrators, and then himself – but his carnage did not stop there.

Like the glass door he shot his way through at the Sandy Hook Elementary School the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, the greater community of Newtown, Conn., has in a sense been left shattered into hundreds, if not thousands, of shards. Lanza’s assault has reverberated through the victims’ extended families, area schools and houses of worship, marriages and relationships and the everyday lives of countless individuals struggling with stress, and haunted by nightmares.

What was a quiet, rural New England town suddenly became the center of worldwide media attention. A year that began with funerals and memorials has been filled with debates over gun control, violent video games and mental health; efforts to provide therapy, and a desperate attempt to answer basic questions: Why? and How to prevent this from happening again?

A recent report of the investigation into the school massacre offered several clues, but no conclusions, on why the 20-year-old Lanza committed the crime. Lanza’s parents divorced in 2001, and his father remarried. There was a marked drop in contact between Adam and his father since 2010. The young man spent much of his time holed up in his room, playing video and computer games, apparently including a game called “School Shooting,” where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students.

Reading the report, one gets the sense that Lanza’s was a life led in a kind of darkness. He surely brought darkness into the lives of so many. Indeed, according to the natural season, it was the darkest time of the year – but also a time when that natural darkness is countered by the multitude of lights. The Christmas liturgy uses the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John, which notes that “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.”

Those are the words inscribed on a bell that was struck in honor of the Sandy Hook victims, to be dedicated by the Catholic parish in town, St. Rose of Lima, on the first anniversary. St. Rose had a week’s worth of funerals in the days leading up to Christmas last year – for eight school children, far more than the community’s other houses of worship. The parish will remember the victims at a Mass on the morning of Dec. 14, offered by Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.

That evening, 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,” according to an announcement in a recent church bulletin.

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, 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,” said Msgr. Robert Weiss, the pastor, in an interview 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.

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.”

Msgr. Weiss 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. Eight of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook School were in the religious education program. “There’s not a day that goes 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.

‘My Grace is Sufficient’

Having served some 14 years as pastor of St. Rose – a large and very active parish less than 50 miles southwest of Hartford, the state capital – Msgr. Weiss never expected to be thrust into the national spotlight –  he emerged as one of the leading voices in the wake of the tragedy.
When the news broke the morning of Dec. 14, children from St. Rose School were in the church for a monthly school Mass. After checking on the students, he went to the Sandy Hook School and stayed all day at a local firehouse where students were being reunited with their parents. He spent much of that afternoon comforting families that would not be reunited with the children they dropped off at school that morning.

Arsenault was also on hand. “I remember being in the firehouse that day when the parents first found out, and Monsignor was saying, ‘We’re having a Mass tonight.’ He started posting signs in the firehouse about the Mass.”

The church, which seats several hundred people, “was beyond packed” for the evening liturgy, Arsenault remembers. “There were people outside, all the way around the church; there were windows open so at least people could see in, they could hear. We put loudspeakers outside. Where else do you turn? What else makes any sense but to go to God and pray in our hearts, our homes and communities?”

Jennifer Hubbard, a catechist at the parish who lost her daughter, Catherine, that day, recalled, “The doors of the church were open and the light from within was a beacon to the restless, sad and confused. The light filled souls and started the slow melt of hearts that were frozen in the devastation.” Arsenault’s religious education program, which enrolls some 1,350 children in pre-K through 8th grade and has several high school youth groups, was hit hard. In one class alone, three of its 12 students were taken by Lanza’s bullets.

“Many of our kids were in that school that day,” Arsenault said. “Some witnessed an awful lot; others were saved because teachers were able to shield them to a certain extent; others were in classrooms that were further down” from Lanza’s fusillade.

Arsenault was part of a team that undertook the difficult task of planning the funerals. “It was so good to sit and listen to the families’ stories of their children,” she recounted. “At seven of the eight funerals, the parents gave the eulogies, which was phenomenal.”

In one family, a father who was thought to be reluctant to be involved in the planning “came right into the room” when Arsenault arrived in the home. “He said, ‘Pam I know the readings I want.’ And the reading was, ‘My grace is sufficient, [for power is made perfect in weakness, 2 Cor 12: 9],’ and I remember just thinking, ‘That’s the way we have to go through this because there is no way we know what to do next, as a parish, as a
community of faith, as friends, as catechists. And so it has to be whatever God wants next. And really, God did supply for our needs here as a parish community.”

God Prepared Her

One of the ways in which God “supplied,” Arsenault said, was the willingness of three grieving mothers to speak to parents and catechists in the days following the incident, “giving witness to the power of God.” Jennifer Hubbard, who had lost her six-year-old daughter Catherine in the shooting, told a gathering of her fellow catechists, “While I may not understand right now how I will muster the strength to fulfill [God’s] purpose, I must remain centered on his face.” She acknowledged the “responsibility to continue to serve our children and help them be rooted in their faith. We are bound to this place and must bring our children’s understanding of faith to a new level.”

Hubbard told the catechists that her eight-year-old son, Frederick, asked her “how God would do this.” She told him, “God didn’t do this. We are human, we have free will, there are people that do not listen to God’s voice and decide to take their own path.”

Over the ensuing year, Hubbard has reflected on events in her life and began to see how she’s been prepared for the loss of her daughter. In another talk, at the end of May, she said that she and her husband, Matthew, almost lost their first child when he was born with a pin-sized hole in his lungs. The life-threatening condition brought Hubbard closer to the faith.

“At that point in my life, God meant church. Church was Sunday, and Sunday was my time. So if it fit in, we would go to church,” she recalled. But she made a deal with God: that if he kept Frederick safe, she would change.

Frederick made it through the health scare. As he and Catherine grew up and started school, they made friends, and through them, “God put people in my life that helped me to dig deeper into my relationship with him,” Hubbard said. She started to pray more, read Scripture and teach catechism.

“Before long, I once again found myself in a renewed relationship with Jesus,” she said. “I felt serenity in knowing that God was in control and that his gentle hand would hold mine as he leads me through life.”

It was the preparation she needed for Dec. 14, 2012. “This time I did not feel the need to make any deals,” she said. “I rested in the peace knowing that Catherine had gone home to God. I drew comfort knowing that God would not falter to show us the way out of such deep sadness.”

Help from Near and Far

In the wake of the funerals, the parish met with parents and those affected by the tragedy, providing resources on Catholic teachings about life after death. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Bridgeport met with catechists and parents to provide tools for helping children. Some were still quite traumatized by what they had seen and heard during the shooting spree. Catholic Charities arranged for a counselor, Douglas Thompson, to meet with anyone who needed to talk.

“They were pretty small groups, which was nice because whatever concerns they had they were able to say – whether it was a concern of the teacher of ‘what about if this happens in a classroom’ or if it was a concern of a parent such as ‘I don’t know what to do with my child’s dreams and their fear at night,’” Arsenault said.

Thompson recently led a workshop for men in the parish on how they can help themselves and their family cope with trauma and grief and identify mental health needs.

“Our concern is, as the anniversary of the tragedy is coming up, we want to be prepared as fathers and heads of households to help our families through that time,” said Pat Gorman, co-chairman of the local Knights of Columbus’ Culture of Life Committee, which sponsored the workshop. Gorman hopes the parish’s new men’s ministry also will provide an avenue for men to share their concerns with one another.

There was much unsolicited help, as well, from near and far. A woman in Louisiana, for example, raised funds to purchase Jesus and Mary dolls that were given out at the first Communion Mass in May. The dolls, about two feet tall, have a red embroidered heart under the shirts. “They’re really soft, so the children were finding such comfort in these, sleeping with them, hugging them,” Arsenault said. “And then parents would come in afterwards and say, ‘Gosh, you can’t believe, the kids are all bringing them to their sleepover parties now.’ So then we had people coming in saying, ‘I’m not Catholic, but could I have a Mary doll for my child?’ because the children were sharing them. So in a sense, we saw children evangelizing, saying ‘You can find comfort with God; you can find comfort with Jesus.’”

And then there were the therapy dogs – canines that are certified to give comfort to people who are sick or traumatized. A number of people with such dogs came to the area, including a School Sister of Notre Dame from New Jersey, Sister Mary Foley.

“She offered to meet with the children who were having more sensitivity to the whole issue,” Arsenault said. “They were having difficulty reentering religious ed class.”

Sister Mary, the social worker at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, N.J., and Luke, her border collie, have helped people dealing with trauma in places like Tuscaloosa after the devastating tornados in 2011, and in Boston after the marathon bombing earlier this year. A child at St. Rose had seen a picture of Luke from one of his visits to Newtown and expressed a desire to meet the dog.

“I went up there after religious ed class on a Wednesday afternoon, and the child came right up and hugged Luke,” said Sister Mary. “We went for a walk, over by the church. Another teacher asked the child, ‘Would you like to go into the church with Luke?’”

The child agreed, and sat down on the rug near the sanctuary, petting and talking to the dog.
“When you go to church with your parents, you can think about what it was like being here with Luke,” Sister Mary said to the child, who soon after started going back to church.
Sister Mary worked with the child on subsequent visits, and eventually the child felt comfortable enough, with Luke’s help, to return to class as well.

Therapy dogs are not a panacea, of course, and this child, as well as many others, have been receiving ongoing professional therapy.

There have also been more requests for spiritual counseling, and Msgr. Weiss said he has done a lot recently, including counseling of children who were friends of the victims.

“What we’re finding is that it wasn’t necessarily what happened on December 14,” he said. “What happened that day surfaced a lot of issues that people suppressed or just didn’t deal with prior to it.”

The pastor said that parents of victims have been “receiving a lot of professional psychological counseling” and that “the ones who have held on to their faith have been a powerful witness. They’re counseling us. We’re taking a lead from them, the incredible faith that they have.”

Respect for Life

Some families over the past year have taken on roles as advocates for gun control and mental health. Issues like that took center stage in the aftermath of the shooting, and in some of his homilies last year, Msgr. Weiss stressed the need to go beyond particular policy issues to address violence in society. He still feels that the most important thing is a renewal of society’s respect for human life, and he often broaches the subject from the pulpit.

“He sometimes says, ‘Think about whether you really want your child to have that violent video game,’” Arsenault reported. “Think about what that can do to their own mind in desensitizing them to death or to violence.”

“I’ve always felt that until all of us embrace life and embrace the respect each person deserves, all the legislation in the world is not going to help us,” Msgr. Weiss said in an interview. “We really need to adapt an attitude about life, and our new Holy Father is really helping us to do that. I’m still very hopeful.”

He spoke about the importance of the Church taking the lead in restoring a culture of life. “I’m glad we’re a pro-life Church. I’m glad that we take the stand that we do on these pro-life issues, and violence is a big one.”

He indicted the entertainment industry for desensitizing young people to violence. “I don’t think they are as shocked at the amount of violence that goes on,” he said. “They’re just lowering and changing all the ratings for movies so younger people can see more violent movies. … Young kids are just accepting it as a way of life. It’s not a way of life; it certainly shouldn’t be the way of life to which we’re called.”

One area where the Church can make a contribution is in the education of its youth. St. Rose of Lima School has about 400 students in pre-K through 8. Principal Mary R. Maloney said that in the wake of the tragedy, the school has implemented a number of changes, such as hiring a guidance counselor and initiating a program to help teachers identify issues with student long before they turn into major, even violent, problems.

“We initiated an advisory program a couple of years ago, and this tool we’re using now … helps support our advisory groups and gives students an outlet to set their own personal goals as well as to identify what their challenges are and how they’re going to overcome those challenges,” Maloney said in an interview December 5. She said the school also conducts student surveys, and a recent one asked them about “their feeling comfortable in the school and what areas don’t they feel comfortable in. It’s been very beneficial to them to express themselves and for us to respond to their needs. It’s a way for us to be proactive and help students get through things before it’s too late. These days there’s a lot of things that go on with young teens, especially with their access to media. We can protect them only so much here, but they’re exposed outside the school, like getting on or any of those venues where they feel they can express themselves.  We’re trying to get them to understand that this is a safe place, a place where they can plan things out, talk things out.”

She said the program “helps them think things through and start a relationship with adults in their lives at the school, a trusting environment. … At that age, they don’t necessarily trust adults because they’re either worried about getting in trouble or teachers finding out things and maybe looking at them in a different way. We’re trying to avoid students taking the wrong path.”

In general, Maloney said that Newtown “has always been very family-oriented and very trusting. But now there’s more attention paid to little things that may have been taken for granted. We assumed everything was okay when it was not necessarily okay.”

“Our parents are very active in their faith and they’re sending their kids here for the right reasons,” she concluded. “We’re just doing little things and embracing them more and getting them involved in different programs. It’s going to take time. You can’t change a culture in a year.”

An earlier version of this story ran on Nov. 26.

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