20 Brighter Stars: Shocked Connecticut Town Mourns Its Slain Children

Only hours after a gunman took 20 of their children, a small town's people turned to its religious leaders to begin the process of rebuilding their lives

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David Goldman / AP

A flag flies at half-staff on Main Street in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15 2012

The flag that flies above Newtown, in Connecticut, sits in the middle of Main Street, atop a 40-ft. flagpole at the intersection of Church Hill Road. The street names are literal: Main Street contains the police station and the town’s historic homes, while Church Hill slopes down past a stone Episcopal chapel. Spotlights midway up the mast ensure that the flag remains illuminated even in the darkness. As night descended over Newtown yesterday, the 10-ft.-long flag hung limply at half-staff just above the spotlights.

Less than eight hours before, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School just on the other side of this small, affluent town, killed 20 children and six adults, then reportedly took his own life. Early reports detail a chaotic scene. According to eyewitnesses, the children could hear screams over the intercom as their friends were slaughtered.

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According to media reports, some of the children were told to close their eyes and hold hands as they were led from the building.

Once in the safety of the local volunteer firehouse, the trauma ended, but the tragedy’s second phase played out. Parents, having been alerted to a school shooting by a reverse 911 call, rushed to the firehouse where they frantically searched for their children. For many, there were tearful reunions, but for several other parents, the searches ended when police officials asked them to go into a separate room. There, they were told that their children were among those believed to be dead.

For many of the young children emerging from a nightmare, it was a confusing scene. “They were kind of torn, whether they wanted to go home with their parents or they wanted to stay there and protect their friends,” Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, said. He was one of the first of the town’s clergy to arrive at the firehouse and counseled parents whose children had been killed. “It was brutal,” he said. “I can’t think of a better word. It was just brutal to witness the pain today.”

Shortly after darkness fell, nearly a thousand of the town’s residents packed St. Rose of Lima Church. Every single seat in the 650-person chapel was filled, and people stood shoulder to shoulder in the sanctuary’s aisles. They packed the choir pews and spilled out into the parking lot from every open door. People stood dozens deep in the narthex and out into the parking lot.

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Just inside the church, a sign hung above their heads, saying in big block letters, “Love One Another.” This was Jesus’ commandment, as written in the Gospel According to John: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Along the church’s brick facade, people made room for one another, taking turns by the open windows to listen in silence to the sounds of the service. The music of hymns wafted out of the warm church and over those gathered in the frigid night air.

Toward the end of the service, two young parishioners who barely looked like teenagers walked to the edge of the parking lot and offered the assembled masses the Holy Communion. Dozens accepted, reverently consuming the wafers before disappearing back into the crowd.

An hour after Weiss began the service, the sounds of the devotional song “On Eagle’s Wings” emerged from the church:

And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings/ Bear you on the breath of dawn

Make you shine like the sun/ And hold you in the palm of His hand.

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As the congregation began to depart, Weiss spoke about the children they had lost and the parents who now have to bury them. He talked about a father who had described how excited he was when his son, who was killed in the massacre, had scored his first soccer goal. “There was a lot of happiness in the midst of a lot of tears today,” Weiss said.

When a reporter asked how the community would deal with such an immense tragedy at Christmastime, Weiss answered, “These 20 children lit up this community better than all the Christmas lights we have.” And with a gentle nod upward, he added, “There are 20 brighter stars in the heavens.”

Well after midnight, stars shone brightly over Newtown. In a sky with no clouds, they scattered over treetops and houses and church steeples, and above the towering flagpole at the center of the town. The flag glowed brightly in the spotlight as if it hadn’t moved at all, still hanging halfway down the mast. It is likely to remain there for some time.

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