NEWTOWN — Newtown residents and the public crowded into church pews Friday night to seek solace in their shared grief and lift up victims of the Sandy Hook shootings in prayer and song.
The annual memorial Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church — and a sister service at Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown, sponsored by the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association — brought a solemn close to an emotional sixth anniversary that was punctuated with acts of kindness, statements of support and an early Friday bomb hoax that evacuated children at Sandy Hook School.
“It’s very dark right now but we don’t have to live in darkness,” said Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lina Church, addressing several hundred families at one service. “We can turn that darkness into light by living more authentic lives.”
A highlight of the St. Rose service was a silent opening ceremony that consisted of children bringing up illuminated glass angels — one for each of the 26 shooting victims — as the victim’s name was read and a bell rung. The children hung the angels on a Christmas tree next to the altar.
Meanwhile at an interfaith service at Congregation Adath Israel, local leaders read verses from Christian, Muslim, Bahai and Jewish texts.
The services capped what was supposed to be a regular day at work and school in Newtown, except for an early morning ecumenical service for educators and brief moments of silence and reflection in classrooms and town offices.
It almost was. But a hoaxer called in a bomb threat to Sandy Hook School shortly after 9 a.m., causing administrators to send the students home while police concluded the threat was unfounded.
It was the last thing Newtown needed on a day when many families struggle not to dwell on the tragedy, but the strength and the solidarity of the community came through, schools Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said.
“I applaud the courage and the strength that was so visible throughout the day,” Rodrigue said in a statement after the bomb hoax.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., agreed.
“Nothing we do can ever bring those kids back, but we should be inspired by Newtown’s efforts to make the world a kinder, gentler place,” Murphy said in a statement. “We can reach out to one another and help those in need.”
The Friday night services in Newtown were part of a larger effort in Connecticut and across the country to galvanize support for the victims of gun violence. In Ridgefield, town officials and the leader of a gun violence prevention group called for new federal gun safety legislation. Elsewhere in the country, high school students in Iowa City, Iowa, walked out of school Friday to protest school shootings.
Closer to home, Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., encouraged Americans to honor the anniversary by volunteering, and to support stronger gun laws.
“This is the year we must muster the courage to turn our rhetoric into results,” Blumenthal said in a statement.