There is still hope.
That was the message that resonated throughout the city this weekend despite Friday’s horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six school employees, including the principal, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The shooter, Adam Lanza, 20, also took his own life after a 10-minute shooting spree. He killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, at home before going to the school.
Lanza shot his way though the school’s locked doors. He was equipped with a military-style rifle and two semi-automatic pistols. The 26 victims were shot multiple times with the rifle before Lanza turned one of the handguns on himself. The Connecticut state medical examiner announced Sunday afternoon that Lanza’a death was officially ruled a suicide.
In the wake of the tragedy, Warwick residents and officials are doing everything in their power to remain hopeful.
Mayor Scott Avedisian said his thoughts and prayers go out to all the residents of Newtown.
“When terrible things happen in a community, it is important that we not retreat into the darkness but instead embrace the hope of light,” he said in an email. “In all times and in all places, communities are faced with seemingly insurmountable grief. Yet, the hope and the promise of the future is what guides them, and us, on to the future. Senseless bloodshed, the terrible killing of innocent children and the adults who tried valiantly to protect them, and the grief of the aftermath must give rise to new purpose and to a new dawn.”
David Lauterbach, president and CEO of the Kent Center for Human and Organizational Development, said that while it’s essential for everyone to help children get through this horror by hugging them a little closer, and reassuring them of their safety, it’s vital for the community and health care organizations to take stock of how it all happened.
He said adults need to take a serious look at things such as the level of violence we expose our children to in videos, the amount of assault weapons we have on the street and the amount of funding we put behind mental health.
“I don’t think we should put those things behind us – I think we should put those things in front of us,” he said during a phone interview yesterday afternoon. “What do we have to do as a country, as a society, to make sure that these things don’t happen? For children, however, it’s important that we do put the horror of this behind us, and that we don’t leave our TVs on unattended and try to celebrate the holiday season and ensure our children that they are safe, that their schools are safe.”
Frank Picozzi, who has been decorating his home at 75 Gristmill Road for Christmas with a computerized display for the last five years, said he wasn’t sure if he should operate the show Friday night. He said he struggled all day to decide whether or not to even run it because of the tragedy.
Picozzi turned to his network of “extreme decorators” via the Internet, and many of them who live in various parts of the country were grappling with the same issue. He said they all pointed out that Friday nights are typically busy evenings for children and their families, so most of them make the choice to power on their displays.
“Usually on Friday, there's a huge amount of traffic right from the start, but this wasn't the case [Friday] night,” he said in an email.
For the first few hours or so, not many visitors came by. But at about 7, people started to come, and soon his street was filled with viewers. He estimates that about 500 people came by that night.
“Almost all the parents got out of the car with the kids and they seemed to enjoy being together as a family more than usual,” said Picozzi. “I think the events of [Friday] really made parents need to be with and love their children. There was a very special ‘vibration’ in the air. I'm so glad I decided to run the lights last night.”
During visiting hours, he said he met a couple with three children who are friendly with another family whose child goes to Sandy Hook. While their hearts were heavy for the victims, they were relieved that the child wasn’t harmed.
On Sunday, parishioners at Sts. Rose and Clement Church were also grieving for the victims. Once a month, the church holds a Children’s Mass, in which the church’s pastor, Rev. Fr. Edward Wilson Jr., invites children to join him on the altar while he reads the gospel and gives the homily. It seemed appropriate that this past Sunday was the week the Mass was held.
“This Christmas, there are people all over the world who have sorrow in their hearts,” Father Wilson said to about 100 children. “People who are very near to us, one state over, are going to be very sad this Christmas, so we want to pray for them.”
In his homily, Father Wilson spoke of the gospel reading, which explained how St. John the Baptist was God’s “whistle” more than 2,000 years ago, as he spread the word of God.
He then asked the children, “Who is God’s whistle today?” The children replied, “Us.” Father Wilson said the children are correct, and the world needs more whistles, or more people who follow Jesus. With that, Father Wilson asked the children to turn around and face the congregation.
“One cannot see this scene and not be filled with all sorts of emotions,” he said, noting that Jesus can get them through this tragedy, and that a deeper commitment to mass and prayer will help. “That’s the answer.”
Father Wilson, along with altar servers, gave a gift to each child before the children returned to their seats: a Christmas tree ornament shaped like a donkey, an animal frequently affiliated with the manger.
Claire Fitzgerald, 6, a first grader at St. Rose of Lima, made a manger from the tissue paper her ornament was wrapped in. She planned to bring it home and put the Holy Family inside. For Fitzgerald, the best thing about Christmas is “baby Jesus being born.”
Christine Walaska, who attended Mass with her son William Walaska III, 10, a fifth grader at St. Rose, agreed, as did Abby Meuse, 5, a kindergartener at St. Rose. She said it’s important to pray.
“Love Jesus because He loves you,” said Abby.
Her mother, Kristen, said she thought Father Wilson’s homily was “beautiful and on target.”
“It was something that the kids needed to hear,” she said. “It was at their level so they can understand. It’s important to teach our kids to think about others and about how we can make the world a better place.”
Hayley Collins, 8, a third grader at Park Elementary, picked up on Father Wilson’s message.
“Father Wilson said we need to spread the word of Jesus,” she said. She also said she and her family start each Christmas morning by setting a baby Jesus figurine in the house and gather around it to say prayers before they unwrap presents.
Ava Fairbanks, 6, a first grader at Meadowbrook Farms Elementary in East Greenwich, was at the Mass with her family. She said Jesus is kind and “the center of the month.”
While the Mass mainly focused on bringing this message to children, teens were also accounted for. Allison Stopyra, 16, a junior at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, addressed the congregation about an overnight bible camp specifically geared toward teenagers that helps bring them closer to God.
“It’s not a typical retreat,” she said to parishioners. “In just three days, I discovered more about myself, my faith and my God than I have in my lifetime.”
In an interview following Mass, Stopyra said the experience helped her in many ways.
“It was just wonderful, and I knew my life had changed,” she said. “It has deepened my faith in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s made me want to come to church every week.”
Father Wilson left parishioners with this advice: “Keep the families in Newtown in your prayers.”
After Mass, Wilson said evil can be healed by letting Jesus into our hearts. He expressed the need to pray every day.
“We pray in the midst of grief that the light of Christ will carry this community of people,” he said. “We’re not afraid of this darkness. Christ will overcome it. God loves us and we need Him more in our lives. That’s what I want our children to know – have Jesus more in your life. That will make us better. It doesn’t prevent everything, but it’s a very strong defense against evil.”
To learn more about the retreat for teens, contact the parish at 739-0212. For more information about Picozzi’s Christmas display, visit www.PicozziChristmas.com.
The Kent Center has a 24-hour emergency line that can be reached at 738-4300.