Last month, after news broke of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a small Connecticut town, the parish of St. Patrick-St. Anthony in Hartford began offering various ways for community members to pray and to heal. This report was written on Christmas Eve by a staff member of the downtown parish, less than an hour’s drive from Newtown.
HARTFORD, Conn. — By the afternoon of Dec. 14, our church doors were opened wide to receive any who felt the need for quiet prayer in response to the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., earlier that day. Through our parish-wide e-mail system, word spread that the church was open and all were invited to stop by to pay a visit on Friday or Saturday for comfort and to be in solidarity with those suffering unimaginable loss. And many came.
Members of our religious education team faced the difficult challenge of receiving children with their parents for that Friday’s after-school Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Parents were visibly shaken and children were at various stages of understanding all that had transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The religious education team ministered to parents’ individual needs while classes were in session. By the end of class time, the team had developed a very informational and useful resource: “Talking to Children about Violence — Tips for Parents and Teachers.”
At all weekend Masses, people wept openly for the deceased of Newtown. Parishioners had both direct and indirect connections to those lost in the tragedy. It was as if a pall had been draped upon our state and in our house of prayer.
Healing and Remembrance
We invited people to gather on Tuesday for a special Mass of healing and memorial. David Schlatter, OFM,brought one of the Bells of Remembrance on Monday afternoon to be part of the service. A call went out to our prayer shawl ministers and more than 50 prayer shawls were dropped off to the church to be blessed that night and sent off immediately to Newtown.
And, during the Mass, as the names of all 28 deceased were read aloud, the bell tolled, and a vigil candle was lit. Twenty-eight candles rimmed the altar. We invited two parishioners to be candle lighters — one who is an elementary school principal and another who is a law enforcement officer. As they began to light the candles from the middle of the altar moving outward, it was as if they were parting a curtain of darkness very slowly to reveal the light. The light was truly a memorable visual symbol that broke through the darkness.
It was significant and intentional that 28 candles were lit. As our pastor Thomas Gallagher, OFM, wrote to parishioners: “At St. Patrick-St. Anthony, we say ‘all are welcome.’ With that in mind, we pray for all 28 who were killed, all who mourn, and all who need healing from the trauma of the experience.” This included the shooter and his mother, as well as the 26 children and adults killed at the school.
Support and Encouragement
As we gathered for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the bell tolled 28 times, breaking the silence in a call to prayer for each Mass. No words of introduction or explanation were spoken. None were needed.
The weekend after Christmas we are taking up a collection of donations and notes of support and encouragement to be sent to St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown as we reach out to show our concern for the parishioners and ministers of that parish as they face the trauma of being part of this violent experience.
All of us have been impacted by the Newtown tragedy as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior. We have already witnessed how the Light has not been overcome by the darkness and in the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to live into the reality of “God With Us.”
— Patricia Curtis is a pastoral associate at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish. She wrote an essay for the Aug. 15 issue of HNP Today about the education she has received from Franciscans about hope, hospitality and service.