By Rose Brennan
NEWTOWN—For Monsignor Robert Weiss, the morning of December 14, 2012 began with wrapping presents in the attic. It was an activity anyone else might be doing 10 days before Christmas Eve. But that day, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish would receive a phone call that shattered that sense of holiday joy.
On the other end of the phone was a custodian from Sandy Hook Elementary School, telling him there had been an accident, and that he might want to come to the school. Of course, he’d soon learn what happened was no accident. In fact, it would later be known as the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in American history.
After ensuring the students at St. Rose School were safe, Monsignor Weiss headed to the Sandy Hook Firehouse, where the shooting’s survivors were congregating. While en route, the state police chief asked him if he could come to the school first and say a blessing over the children who hadn’t survived. Monsignor Weiss entered the school grounds and approached the door, and what he saw on the other side haunts him to this day. Standing on the threshold of the unspeakable, he offered a blessing, and immediately understood the profound responsibility of personally and spiritually accompanying the community afflicted with this loss.
“I said, ‘Those children are with the Lord. The children that I think I can help right now are up at that firehouse,’” he said.
Monsignor Weiss traveled back to the firehouse, where he remained for much of the day, meeting with survivors and their families, and listening as first responders called out children’s names to reunite them. As more and more names were called, he noticed a group of parents congregating toward the back wall. Their children’s names hadn’t been called yet.
Around noon, the state police chief asked Monsignor Weiss to contact the other clergy at St. Rose, as the governor would arrive at 3 pm to deliver a devastating announcement to those parents — there were no more survivors, and their children had died in the shooting.
“It was a Friday from 12 to three, so it was very much the Passion narrative,” he said. “At around quarter to three, the families asked if we would pray with them, and so we formed a very large circle, and the clergy offered prayers. Many of the parents offered prayers as well. And at three, the governor came in and made the announcement.”
The firehouse was eventually cleared around 5 pm, and Monsignor Weiss made his way back to his car. But on his way there, he was swarmed by hundreds of reporters, wanting to know what happened.
“If you know Newtown, we’re mostly two-lane roads; you couldn’t even walk,” he said. “The one question they kept asking me is, ‘Did this make you lose your faith in God?’ And I said no, if anything, it made me lose my faith in humanity.”
St. Rose had a daily Mass scheduled for 7:30 that evening. But Monsignor Weiss said the church was packed by 6 pm — some 2,000 people, he said police estimated.
“People were just gathering all over our church grounds, singing Christmas songs or praying the Rosary,” he said. “And there were people looking to hold onto each other and share that sense of community, that sense of faith, that sense of love and that sense of loss.”
Monsignor Weiss once again ventured out around 11 pm with the police to confirm with certain families that their children had died. They finished around 2 am, and before retiring for the evening, he stopped by the church again. Now largely empty, only a small group remained: a few graduates of St. Rose School who were now college-aged and home for Christmas, kneeling and praying the Rosary.
Once he was home, Monsignor Weiss turned on the television, hoping to find a silly Christmas movie, but likely expecting news coverage of what just occurred in his town. But he found neither.
“Carousel was on,” he said. “And the song was ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ And that was, to me, the sign that I’m not in this alone and that we’ll get through it together.”
The Impact of Innocence
With only 10 days left until Christmas, Monsignor Weiss had to observe nine funeral Masses over five days for the deceased children who were parishioners at St. Rose. He noted at all of the funerals except one, the eulogy was delivered by the child’s mother.
One of those mothers was Jenny Hubbard, who lost her daughter Catherine in the attack. She said her grief was profound following her loss.
“It’s kind of like you have a limb amputated, and you can still kind of feel it there, but it’s not there,” Hubbard said. “Navigating after Catherine died was a lot like learning how to walk again.”
To cope with writing homilies for so many children who lost their lives in such a violent way, Monsignor Weiss based his remarks on three lessons the community could learn from the children’s short yet impactful lives.
“These children, in their innocence, have so much to teach,” he said, noting he himself had been impacted by them. He recalled Josephine Gay, who enjoyed tracing the designs on his chasuble when he knelt down to her level after Mass, and Caroline Previdi, who would bring a bag of pennies to the parish’s annual toy drive so another child could have a Christmas present.
Much of the impact Catherine Hubbard made on others was through her love of animals, with her mother remarking caring for them was her daughter’s passion.
“When I think about her life and what it stood for, she just wanted the animals that she took care of — whether they were backyard insects or stuffed animals or our family pet — to know that she was kind and that she would always take care of them,” Hubbard said.
This love of animals led Hubbard to ask for donations to the Newtown Animal Control Center in lieu of flowers in Catherine’s obituary. But she accidentally called it the “Newtown Animal Center,” and the donations were instead received by The Animal Center in Newtown.
That January, the center reached out to Hubbard, wanting her input on what to do with all the donations they received. And together, they came up with the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary.
To Hubbard, developing the animal sanctuary was instrumental in healing from her daughter’s death.
“As they described what they saw as the animal sanctuary, I could see Catherine,” Hubbard said. “I could sense that it would have been a place that she would’ve loved to have gone to, and probably would have spent a lot of time at.”
St. Rose also received untold support from outside of the parish in the days and weeks following the shooting, with letters and goodies pouring in to show love and support for the tragedy-stricken community.
“I remember this parish in Hershey, Pennsylvania came and (left) two 50-gallon garbage bags filled with Hershey Kisses,” Monsignor Weiss said. “We were overwhelmed by people’s goodness. Just boxes and boxes and boxes, everything from flowers, turkeys, fruitcakes, Christmas cookies, Christmas ornaments, prayer chains, artwork, poems, plaques and angels. Angels by the hundreds came in.”
Moving a community forward
As time went on, Newtown slowly began to heal from the violence that struck their community. However, about three years after the shooting, St. Rose School received an unwelcome visitor.
That visitor was Alex Jones, a far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist, who claimed the Sandy Hook shooting didn’t happen and was a “giant hoax.” And Monsignor Weiss didn’t mince words about how Jones’ rhetoric victimized his community, recalling his visit to St. Rose School.
“We had two children that were redheads, and he would say, ‘See? I told you he’s hiding them here!’” Monsignor Weiss said. “I had the police remove him from the campus, and then I got claims he just came here to light a candle, which was a complete lie.”
Some of the families who lost children in the shooting pursued legal action against Jones, who was ordered to pay $965 million in damages in October 2022 and ultimately declared bankruptcy two months later. But Monsignor Weiss believes even if it wasn’t Jones spreading that disinformation, it would’ve been someone else.
“There are just those people out there who hate the government,” he said. “They hate everything about the truth. And they call themselves ‘truthers,’ but if anything, they don’t live it.”
Because of how the liturgical year is structured, the anniversary of the shooting always occurs during Advent. And when each anniversary comes, so does a season of waiting for the Light of the World to appear on earth — a theme Monsignor Weiss thinks is apt to intertwine with such a somber occasion.
“The mantra the first night was, ‘This darkness is not going to conquer the light,’” he said. “That’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Advent. That’s the Advent hope that people held onto.”
As time has gone by, leaders in the Newtown community have come and gone, but Monsignor Weiss remains — in part due to a desire to lead his community through the 10th anniversary of the shooting. To him, its aftermath illustrated both the resilience of his community and the pivotal role faith played in helping them heal.
“I remember so many of the media … were astonished that the faith life in this community was so strong,” he said. “This is a very family-focused town, and faith is very much a part of that. So I think from that point of view, we show the world that faith is very much alive in the hearts of people.”
When confronted with an act of evil like what happened at Sandy Hook, many might be inclined to lose their faith. But, if anything, Hubbard found herself relying on it more than ever before.
“What I’ve found is that when faced with any tragedy or traumatic event, you cling to what you know,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve seen my faith really transform, in a sense that it is the thread of my being. But I really do believe that a lot of that was because I had something to hold onto when there was nothing else.”
Charlotte Bacon, 6
She wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up, and liked practicing Tae Kwon Do with her father and brother.
Daniel Barden, 7
He loved to ride waves at the beach and played drums in a band with his brother and sister.
Rachel D’Avino, 29
She was a hard worker and a risk-taker, and did everything with confidence, but never arrogance.
Olivia Engel, 7
She would lead the family in praying grace before dinner, and loved riding on her grandfather’s boat.
Josephine Gay, 7
She loved peanut butter and would use a new spoon for each mouthful. Her parents would find the spoons all around the house.
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
She made going to see the principal fun, and dressed as the Sandy Hook Book Fairy” to encourage reading.
Dylan Hockley, 6
He adored his big brother and liked to play tag with his neighbors at the bus stop.
Madeleine Hsu, 6
She would wear flowery dresses that matched her personality and loved her two sisters.
Catherine Hubbard, 6
She was known for her bright red hair and her love for animals.
Chase Kowalski, 7
He was a Cub Scout who loved to play baseball and run in races.
Jesse Lewis, 6
He loved playing with his toy soldier, and had an infectious and radiant smile.
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
She loved to sing and never walked anywhere, preferring to dance from one place to another.
James Mattioli, 6
He was great at math, and his big brown eyes followed everything his big sister did.
Grace McDonnell, 7
She loved painting and would draw peace signs in the bathroom mirror when it fogged up after a shower.
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
She had four children and enjoyed the arts and walking in the great outdoors.
Emilie Parker, 6
She loved the color pink and filling notes with all her drawings.
Jack Pinto, 6
He loved the New York Giants and enjoyed wrestling during the football off-season.
Noah Pozner, 6
His favorite food was tacos, and he loved playing Super Mario on the Wii.
Caroline Previdi, 6
She loved art and dance, and some of her favorite words were, “Isn’t that WONDERFUL?”
Jessica Rekos, 6
She loved horseback riding, writing, and playing with her little brothers.
Avielle Richman, 6
She loved horses, Harry Potter, the color red, and running around without shoes on.
Lauren Rousseau, 30
She was known for her exuberance, her love of family and children, and her ever-present smile.
Mary Sherlach, 56
An avid Miami Dolphins fan, she loved helping her students overcome any problem.
Victoria Soto, 27
She had an infectious laugh and loved The Little Mermaid, flamingoes and the New York Yankees.
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
He was a strong swimmer, and enjoyed The Beatles, lighthouses and taking the 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens.
Allison Wyatt, 6
She would tape her drawings up all over the house and loved to make her parents laugh.
If you feel so inclined to make a donation in memory of the victims, please consider the following organizations:
- The Ana Grace Project
- Autism Speaks, in memory of Rachel D’Avino and Anne Marie Murphy
- The Avielle Initiative at the University of Colorado’s Department of Psychiatry
- The Caroline Previdi Foundation
- The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary
- The Charlotte Helen Bacon Foundation
- The Choose Love Movement
- The CMAK Sandy Hook Memorial Foundation
- The Dylan Hockley Memorial Fund
- The Jessica Rekos Foundation
- The Newtown Park and Bark, in memory of Olivia Engel
- The Sandy Hook Promise
- The Vicki Soto Memorial Fund