Monday December 17, 2012

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Peace. Comfort. Sanctuary.

Residents and visitors in this sorrow-stricken community searched for those Sunday morning. They searched for them below fog-covered spires and in the aisles between varnished wooden pews.

They searched for the face of God at the altar, or perhaps the face of anyone to corroborate a heavy grief. Few words were spoken. What was found was unclear. But the call to be there was heard.

"Let us bring our sorrows to the foot of the cross and the Holy Mass together as a family," St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church posted on its website Saturday.

During St. Rose's mass on Sunday, a church administrator looked out with beleaguered eyes at his congregation: Every seat was filled and people lined the back of the church clutching their children close as boys and girls played with stuffed animals, toy motorcycles -- some toddlers remained asleep.

"Joy? Joy? Do I want someone to come in here and talk to me about joy?" said Monsignor Jerald A. Doyle, the administrator of the Diocese of Bridgeport, dressed in pink vestments for the third Sunday of Advent. "I want someone to validate my feelings of sorrow."

He spoke with reservation, but resolution -- a grandfatherly tone echoing past the nave and into the front atrium, where attendees spilled over into.


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During communion, parishioners approached the Eucharistic ministers with tears running down their cheeks, taking the host in their hands, quickly popping it into their mouths and shuffling aside.

The Rev. Robert Weiss, St. Rose's pastor, appeared after the sacraments to make announcements. The church's Christmas Pageant, he said, would continue with its practice at 11 a.m. One of the shooting victims would have played an angel.

As misty rain poured outside, a tarp was placed down by the fire department where a pyramid of stuffed animals was piled. Young children leaving the church picked out stuffed animals and set them on a memorial with candles and flowers that formed as groups passed by, one by one.

"We have 20 new angels in the Kingdom of Heaven. And for the adults who passed, we have those martyrs, those martyrs who gave their life to defend these little ones," Father J.Ignacio A. Ortigas said at a 10:30 a.m. mass.

Some children sat in a separate, quiet room with a window to see the service, pressing their hands against the glass when a friend walked by. Gasper Gjekaj, who traveled from Danbury, was emotional after the service he attended at St. Rose.

"I've been crying for three days," he said.

Mary and Gary Nimer traveled from Brookfield to attend the service and have attended mass a few times at this church in the past.

"We knew in our hearts where we should be; we immediately knew," Mary said. "It was very heartwarming to see people from all over come together with this town."

At the Newtown United Methodist Church, The Rev. Mel Kawakami, the pastor, stood at a pulpit near an altar adorned with a white cloth and 28 lit candles to represent the 27 victims and the shooter.

Pastors and religious leaders in this community became arbiters of spiritual peace for their congregations, but their messages were one of open reality and honesty as opposed to infinite understanding and wisdom. They stood in front of droves of the bereaved, but spoke as if they sat with them.

"We've seen this before. We must forgive like before. But I'm not sure if I'm there yet. The tears are still fresh. The pain is still raw," Kawakami said during the 10 a.m. service to a packed house of some 400 people. "But each tear shed brings us to a place of greater compassion. Open yourself up to the pain so we can heal."

That message was well-received by some.

"He was right to the point and what he said was warranted," said Ron Eiseman, a 13-year resident of the town. "We've always been a tight-knit community, but it's going to take a while. You're foolish if you think you can forgive something like that right away."

Nearby, Newtown Congregational Church on West Street doubled its usual turnout as members and community members came to mourn and seek comfort from each other.

"We suffer because we love," The Rev. Matt Crebbin said during his sermon to the nearly 350 attendees.

Any sense of serenity brought on by the morning of services was disrupted when a man called into St. Rose, reportedly saying "I'm coming to kill, I'm coming to kill," according to The New York Times.

Bridgeport Diocese spokesman Brian Wallace said the threat was called into the church while a noon mass was ongoing. Weiss announced there was a threat to parishioners, Wallace said. He instructed the full congregation to evacuate in an orderly fashion. State police said as of 2 p.m. the scene was "all clear," but the church would remain locked for the rest of Sunday.

Amid the confusion, sadness and fear, a tinge of normalcy came. A pair of parents and a pair of godparents walked down the aisle in Newtown Congregational Church as a mother held her baby.

"We are going to do normal things today that won't feel normal," Crebbin said.

The young child, less than 1 year old and crying in her arms, was baptized.