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Newtown’s Long Journey

AFP.Brendan Smialowski

John Burger - published on 12/08/13 - updated on 06/07/17

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.

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