NEWTOWN, Conn.— Six-year-old Jennifer Waters came to Mass on Dec. 16 at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church with a lot of questions.
“The little children, are they with the angels?” she asked her mother as she fiddled with a small plastic Sonic the Hedgehog figurine on a pew near the back of the church. “Are they going to live with the angels?”
All across this postcard-perfect New England town, children and adults alike had questions: How could a merciful and just God allow something like the Dec. 14 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 20 children — none older than 7 — and six adults?
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel wanted to make one thing clear to the classmates of 6-year-old victim Noah Pozner: “This is not an act of God. This is an act of a crazy man.”
As police work to learn why 20-year-old Adam Lanza would kill his mother and attack an elementary school, residents of this close-knit town of 27,000 sought solace in each other’s company and in the presence of God.
The Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church on Main Street, was at the Sandy Hook firehouse with the families who lost children and has conducted services and counseling sessions since. Her church will host two children’s funerals this week, but on Dec. 16 she projected calm as she spoke of questions unanswerable “in human terms.”
She began a sermon with thanks in many directions — for far-flung clergy “who just got in the cars and drove here to help,” for congregation members who pitched in, for the town’s first responders who rushed to the school. Her own son is a firefighter who was there.
She called for prayers for all of them, for those injured — and for the gunman’s family — but most for the families of “those lovely little children now gone from this place and their teachers who shielded them.”
“Your tears and questions of faith have moved me,” Adams-Shepherd said in a quiet voice. She told of receiving innumerable calls and emails, mentioning in particular a 16-year-old church member who urged all not to lose faith.
“Was God absent from our world on Friday? Indeed not,” she said, citing the people all over the world moved by Newtown’s ordeal and “flocking to churches and temples and mosques.”
The shooting was in prayers at congregations in other U.S. towns. At Wyoming Presbyterian Church in Millburn, N.J., for instance, the congregation stood, held hands and sang the Sunday-school staple, “Jesus loves the little children” — and many, weeping, put their arms around their own children, even if they were now adults.
A theologian once counseled “not to give simple solutions to life’s tragedies” like the school massacre, Adams-Shepherd noted. “It is inexplicable in human terms.”
“None of us will find answers alone to this unfathomable crisis,” she said. “Keep loving and praying.”
Later in the service, saying “we pray especially for,” Adams-Shepherd slowly read the victims’ first names, which echoed off the tall gothic arches and stained-glass windows of the small stone church.
Across town at St. Rose, an overflow crowd of more than 800 people attended the 9 a.m. service.
Lanza and his mother, Nancy, worshipped there, and the son attended the St. Rose school for a time. Now, the church staff are preparing for eight children’s funerals.
Boxes of tissues were placed strategically in each pew and on window sills. The altar was adorned with bouquets, one in the shape of a broken heart, with a zigzag of red carnations cutting through the white ones.
The Rev. Jerald Doyle, the diocesan administrator, officiated. Letters of condolence from the pope and Archbishop William Lori, who left the Bridgeport diocese this year to become archbishop in Baltimore, were read at the start of Mass.
In his homily, Doyle tried to answer the question of how parishioners could find joy in the holiday season with so much sorrow surrounding them.
“You won’t remember what I say, and it will become unimportant,” he said. “But you will really hear deep down that word that will finally and ultimately bring peace and joy. That is the word by which we live. That is the word by which we hope. That is the word by which we love.”
The noon Mass was interrupted and the church evacuated after someone phoned in a threat. Police said nothing dangerous was found.
A spokesman for the diocese said someone called and “threatened to disrupt the mass.” About halfway through the service, the priest stopped and told everyone to leave the church.
About an hour later, the all-clear was given. Police said the church would be in lockdown for the rest of the day.
At Adath Israel, nestled in a remote an area of stone walls, rolling hills and woods, people slowly approached the simple cedar-shake structure as a light, cold rain fell. They filed past a blue-and-gold “Happy Hanukkah” banner and a bronze tablet honoring those lost in the Nazi Holocaust.
“We are forever grateful to those who fight tyranny, to our country, and to this wonderful community for allowing us to gather here and practice our faith in peace,” the plaque read.
Sunday classes went on as planned at the temple, but without Rabbi Praver. He was meeting with Noah’s family to plan the boy’s funeral.
A police officer kept watch over the parking lot. Congregation President Andrew Paley crossed the road to speak to the media.
Paley’s twin sons, fourth-graders, were at the school — one in the art room, the other in the gym. They heard the shots, saw the bodies.
Dec. 15 was the last night of Hanukkah, and the boys celebrated at home with family. Paley has shielded them from news reports, but he said there are lessons to be had from this tragedy.
“The message, if anything, is that there is good that comes out of evil,” he said. “It’s the heroism and the community strength that’s really coming forward here in Newtown. We’re a small-knit community. The Jewish community is smaller. But we all are all together in this.”
After Mass, Joan and Jennifer Waters stopped by a makeshift memorial of votive candles, flowers and stuffed animals to pray the “Our Father.”
“Can we get these?” Jennifer asked her mother.
“No, those are for the little children,” her mother replied.
“Who died?” her daughter asked.
“Yes,” said her mother, wiping away a tear.
As for Jennifer’s earlier question, her mother assured her that they were surely in heaven.
Associated Press writers Christopher Sullivan in Newtown and James Martinez in Millburn, N.J., contributed to this report.