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Thu December 12, 2013
Newtown Priest: 'Respect Each Other' On Anniversary Of Shooting
Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 9:41 am
Monsignor Robert Weiss has been pastor of St. Rose of Lima church in Newtown, Conn., for 13 years. Half of Newtown attends his church, so he knew many of the children who were killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting last December 14th.
He was the first religious person on the scene that day. Weiss, known as Father Bob in Newtown, still remembers the sound of shattered glass under his feet, and he still can’t sleep at night.
He tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that on the first anniversary of the school shooting tomorrow, people should honor the 20 first graders and six educators killed that day by making a difference in the lives of others.
Interview Highlights: Robert Weiss
On his memories from the day of the shooting
“One of the police officers asked if I wanted to come in and bless the children. And at that point I did not realize that there were no surviving children in the building; they had all been taken to the firehouse. And then when I was told what was going on, I declined that offer, I offered a prayer at the door, then I went immediately back to the firehouse where all the other students were. You know, just about half of Newtown belongs to St. Rose of Lima church, so I know many of the families that are attending Sandy Hook school. And I wanted to be with those children until their parents arrived, so I went into the firehouse, and as the teachers were calling roll, I was trying to help them get the children in line, and the teachers began calling the attendants. When I heard a number of names not being called, and I saw a number of parents waiting for their child’s name to be called, I realized the impact of that moment, right then and there.”
On whether his faith has been tested by the shooting
“My faith in God was deepened, because I realized — as did all of this community — that this was an act of evil. This was not the hand of God. I think if I lost anything, it’s just my trust in human beings. You know, I can’t understand why there is so much violence and so much violation of life in this culture in which we are living. It truly is becoming a culture of death. Violence is becoming a way of life more and more, not just in large urban cities, where you almost expect it to happen, but it can happen anywhere, as evidenced by what happened here in Sandy Hook.”
On what people should be thinking about on the anniversary
“I really believe that we can have all the legislation in the world, but until every person really looks into their heart and has that respect for each other, nothing is really going to change in this society. I hope that everyone will take to heart what happened here and what continues to happen every day throughout this country and this world. You know, we’ve asked people to honor these victims by doing acts of kindness in their own communities that day, to get out and to make a difference in the name of these victims. And we’ve already heard some wonderful stories of people and communities and organizations and school communities who have already begun that process, and it’s making a difference in their communities and it’s honoring the victims as well.”
- Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima church in Newtown, Conn.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
Saturday marks a year since 20 first graders and six educators were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And as we approach the anniversary, we are checking in with residents of Newtown. One of them is very well known. They call him Father Bob. But his official title is Monsignor Robert Weiss. He is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, and he's with us now from Newtown. Thanks so much for joining us.
MONSIGNOR ROBERT WEISS: Thank you for inviting me.
HOBSON: Well, it was just about a year ago, you were the first religious leader on the scene, do you remember that day clearly, is it a blur now?
WEISS: I remember much of it very vividly. I, you know, still have some nightmares about some of the moments of that day. But I remember rather clearly, yes. I'm sure there's, you know, a lot of small details that I've kind of tucked away, but I remember the day very clearly.
HOBSON: And what do you see looking back a year later that your role was? What was important about what you were doing on the day? You ended up meeting with every child's family, right?
WEISS: Exactly, yes. You know, I felt my first role was just to be present to the children. I - none of us are very sure exactly what had happened at Sandy Hook school. So when I arrived there and saw all the first responders, I went immediately to the front doors of the school. And one of the police officers asked if I wanted to come in and bless the children. And at that point, I did not realize that there were no surviving children in the building. They had all been taken to the firehouse.
And then when I was told what was going on, I declined that offer. I offered a prayer at the door. Then I went immediately back to the firehouse where all the other students were. You know, just about half of Newtown belongs to St. Rose of Lima Church. So I know many of the families that are attending Sandy Hook school. And I wanted to be with those children until their parents arrived and - so I went in to the firehouse.
And as the teachers were calling roll, I was trying to help them get the children in line. And the teachers began calling the attendants. When I heard a number of names not being called and I saw a number of parents waiting for their child's name to be called, I realize the impact of that moment right then and there.
HOBSON: You knew a lot of these kids.
HOBSON: Do you have memories in your head that keep coming back?
WEISS: You know, absolutely. These were not anonymous to me. I had married some of these couples. I had baptized some of these children. Many of them attended our preschool here at St. Rose or our kindergarten before they transferred to Sandy Hook school. So as I say, they were not anonymous people. I remember a few weeks after all this happened, one of the parents came to me with her daughter's letter book from first grade. And under the letter F, it said Father Bob.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOBBING)
WEISS: So - excuse me.
HOBSON: I'm sorry. I'm sorry to bring it up.
WEISS: That's OK. No, I'm sorry. You know, so I just - it was something very personal. I think that's why we feel. You know, this is a very close knit community, and it doesn't really matter what faith you are in. These families were part of us. And whether they belong to St. Rose or not didn't really matter. They were part of this town. And I think we all felt that pain.
HOBSON: And you ended up speaking at every wake and every funeral. How did you find the words to help people in those situations?
WEISS: Well, you know, we had eight of the funerals here at the church. We had one in a funeral parlor. You know, what we did was we spent time with each family, and we tried to find out as much about the children as they wanted them remembered. And we took, really, several notes. And I tried my best to compile those notes and to make the liturgy as comfortable as I could for the families. Certainly, the music was chosen, the scriptures were chosen, all very appropriate to each of the children.
HOBSON: How are the families doing a year later?
WEISS: You know, they're still very broken, obviously. You know, this is a horrible tragedy. And to think that you wake your child up, especially a six- or seven-year-old, and send them off to school expecting that they're going to be home at 3 o'clock, and not having that happen has left these families devastated. Some of them have become very proactive, some in politics, some at the issue of gun control, of course.
Some of them have really engaged in their own private foundations. Some have written books. I mean, they've all taken different directions. But I think the one universal characteristic of the families that they are very broken and they're very sad.
HOBSON: I was a student once of the great Elie Wiesel who talked about when he was in the Holocaust he put God on trial with some of his friends and found God guilty. I wonder if your faith has been tested during this.
WEISS: You know, that question was probably the first question asked to me. And my faith in God was deepened because I realized, as did all of this community, that this was an act of evil. This was not the hand of God. I think if I lost anything it's just my trust in human beings. You know, I can't understand why there are so much violence and so much violation of life in this culture in which we're living.
It truly is becoming a culture of death. And violence is becoming a way of life more and more. Not just in large urban cities where you almost expect it to happen, but it can happen anywhere, as evidenced by what happened here in Sandy Hook.
HOBSON: What do you think that the rest of us, those of us outside of Newtown should be thinking about on the anniversary, December 14th?
WEISS: You know, I really believe that we can have all the legislation in the world. But until every person really looks into their heart and has that respect for each other, nothing is really going to change in this society. You know, I hope that everyone will take to heart what happened here and what continues to happen every day throughout this country in this world.
You know, we've asked people to and honor these victims by doing acts of kindness in their own communities that day to get out and to make a difference in the name of these victims. And we've already heard some wonderful stories of people and communities and organizations and school communities who have already begun that process. And it's making a difference in their communities and is honoring the victims as well.
HOBSON: Monsignor, everyone comes to you asking for guidance on how they deal with their pain, how do you deal with yours? Who do you go to?
WEISS: Well, you know, it's - I've had a tremendous amount of support. I have to say, you know, my person are starting with them have been, you know, their great concern about me and, you know, I know that this first anniversary, it's going to be a difficult day. And, you know, I've also, of course, deepened my prayer life, tremendously. And I have - I did attend a post-traumatic stress workshop. I have been seeking counseling. It is something that's living very large in my memory.
And I still have a problem with sleeping at night. I still can hear the sound of that broken glass under my feet as I approach the school. You know, I have so many recollections of that day and it seems like as time goes on, more and more recollections come to my mind. So sometimes you feel very alone in this. You know, sometimes you realize that this is a grief that you have to get through. But I have been given a significant amount of support.
HOBSON: Well, we're glad to hear that, and thank you for all that you've done for your fellow citizens of Newtown ever since that tragedy. Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, thank you so much.
WEISS: Thank you.
HOBSON: And to close out this hour, we want to hear some music. One of the first graders who was killed at Newtown is Ana Marquez-Greene. Her father is saxophonist Jimmy Greene. He wrote a song for her, it's called "Ana Grace."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANA GRACE")
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.