In the wake of another school massacre, a spiritual leader from Newtown says: ‘Be present to each other’
After last week’s shooting at an elementary school in Texas, people have turned to houses of worship for comfort and community. After the 2012 massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, people flocked to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown.
The pastor, Monsignor Robert Weiss, was a “spiritual first responder” at Sandy Hook Elementary. Later, he presided over the funerals of eight of the 20 children who died.
Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson spoke with Weiss at St. Rose Church. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Orson: To start, could you bring me back nearly 10 years ago to the day of the shooting?
Weiss: It was a Friday morning. It was a beautiful day, much like 9/11. And I was in the attic wrapping Christmas gifts. I received a phone call from one of the custodians at Sandy Hook school who’s a parishioner here. He said, “Father Bob, could you please come down here? We have something going on.” He was not very specific.
My concern was our own school, because our students at that time were in church attending Mass. So the first thing I did was I ran over to the church to make sure that the principal knew what was going on, and to keep the children in the church until we could get security here. And then I immediately went down to Sandy Hook school.
It looked like a war zone. By the time I got there, there were ambulances, police cars, every kind of first responder. There were helicopters. And one of the state police officers asked me to come in and bless the children. I got down to the front door of the building, and I really just saw a valley of blood.
I just chose not to go into the building. I figured those children are with God, and I needed to be with the children who were surviving in the firehouse. So I did say a blessing at the entrance to the school, but I did not go in.
I went immediately to the firehouse where a number of the students are familiar to me as being parishioners here at St. Rose. I didn’t really do anything except be there. But when the kids saw me, I think it gave them a little sense of security.
Then one by one, the children’s names were called. The parents came and were able to take them home. There was a lot of hugging, a lot of kissing, a lot of crying. Then I noticed against the back wall, there were a group of families and when their children’s names were called, obviously were not there. So they were invited to go into the back room of the firehouse to wait until some information was available.
By noon, the chief of the state police told me that there were no survivors. You heard people on their cellphones calling everybody they could, calling hospitals or having relatives go anyplace they could to try to find their child. And it was rather symbolic that at 3 o’clock on a Friday, the same day and time as on Good Friday, the governor announced to those families that their child had not survived.
One by one, the families left the firehouse. We had decided we were going to have a service here at our church that evening. So I got back here and the church was already packed. I got notice that the governor would attend this Mass, that state senators would be there, that many of our officials from the area would be there. By the time the Mass started, it was estimated there were over 2,000 people outside.
And when the service ended, we were asked as clergy to go with the state police to the families for the final identification that their child had died. That went on until about two in the morning. And I couldn’t believe it. To go to someone’s home at 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock and have to deliver this news was an experience I never thought I’d have.
The next morning, at our services at 12 o’clock, we received a phone call – that “this was not over yet,” and that “he was coming here to finish what Adam [Lanza] had started.” It was a shooting threat. So I had to evacuate the church, and the SWAT team arrived. Then the SWAT team was here continuously. They went through the rectory through everything, just to protect us.
I woke up Monday morning with all my staff gathered right in this room here. And I said, “We’ve got to plan funerals.” It was a week of wakes, funerals, burials. We had eight of the children buried from this church. I did the service at the funeral home for another student, all within a six-day period.
Orson: How did the Sandy Hook shooting change you and your community here at St. Rose?
Weiss: You know, first of all I guess I was foolish, thinking this was going to change the whole world. I thought, 20 kids. Six years old. Right before Christmas. Something’s got to happen about this gun violence. And I’m kind of disappointed that over 10 years later, we’re acknowledging another shooting of that magnitude.
I think what it did for the community was first of all, it helped people reprioritize their lives. You saw a huge change in attitude about family life. This is very much of a commuting community. And I noticed men and women were traveling less and less. They were home for dinner. They were cutting out some of the activities that their children were usually involved with. And they were really spending time together as a family to heal each other.
It certainly has taken a deep toll on me. The post-traumatic stress that I’m still experiencing. I mean, I cry so easily now. Last night, we had a memorial service here ... and just talking about it again. You see that people are still crying. It’s a tough thing.
Orson: Thank you for being so forthcoming. We are now dealing with the Texas shooting, and Pope Francis issued a statement. He said: “I pray for the children, the adults killed, and their families. It’s time to say enough to the indiscriminate trafficking of guns.” Also, I read that the archbishop of Chicago said on Twitter: “The Second Amendment did not come down from Sinai. The right to bear arms will never be more important than human life. Our children have rights too, and our elected officials have a moral duty to protect them.” What are your thoughts on these comments?
Weiss: Oh, I absolutely agree. I mean, I don’t know what's happening in Congress. Something’s wrong. When this happened, [President Obama] brought the families down to meet all the senators. They poured out their hearts in the midst of their grief. And then the vote was taken and they came home broken. I mean, who is going to fix this?
Orson: Is there any way to prepare for what you were called upon to do in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting?
Weiss: You know, I never can understand how do you fit into these situations? And the one word I use is “presence.” Because that’s all the people asked for. They knew I couldn’t undo this. They were just grateful that there were people there who cared about them.
If I talked to the community in Texas, I would say: “Just be present to each other.”
We forget how valuable presence is. We don’t need people talking at us. We need to process this as we go through it. But just to know that you’re there for them makes a big difference.