Newtown seeks solace in church as world mourns Sandy Hook school shooting
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Mourners filled church pews Sunday morning, holding tight to loved ones and seeking answers that may never come.
Others gathered throughout the day at the Christmas tree in the Sandy Hook neighborhood or makeshift outdoor memorials, leaving flowers, toys and other gifts, small gestures for the community as it grapples with unbearable pain two days after 26 people -- including 20 children ages 6 and 7 -- were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
After dark, they poured into the Newtown High School auditorium for an interfaith prayer vigil, joined by President Barack Obama, who earlier met with families of victims and first responders.
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The entire community about 60 miles north of New York City was in mourning.
Stacey Premus, 44, took her three children to morning services at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, hoping to share her grief and ease the pain that left her 6-year-old daughter crying for "the children [that] don't have their mommies and daddies."
"It helps us to start to heal and come together as a community, to comfort one another," Premus said. "It's going to take a long time to heal from this."
On Friday morning, police said, gunman Adam Lanza, 20, forced his way into the elementary school and opened fire before taking his own life. Before going to the school, Lanza had fatally shot his mother at the home they shared about 5 miles away, authorities said.
At St. John's Episcopal Church in Sandy Hook Sunday, the Rev. Mark Moore implored his followers to reach out.
"If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that cataclysmic events can happen," he said. "Ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary town live largely at the mercy of forces not in our control . . . We can escape into our own cocoons or reach out in love and understanding."
Services at St. Rose of Lima were disrupted Sunday by a telephone threat, police said. The church was evacuated as a precaution, rubbing raw residents' already jangled nerves.
Phyllis Grisanti, 66, of Lafayette, N.J., visited the church hoping to console residents.
"We brought 20 white roses for the kids and six red roses for the adults," she said. "As sad as it is, it feels good being here."
But the evacuation prevented Grisanti and her husband from entering the church during the last Mass when they arrived shortly before 1 p.m.
Nancy Elis, 66, of nearby Southbury, cried about the tragedy, compounded by the threat to the church.
"This is the house of God. This is where people come to be comforted," Elis said tearfully. "This is not where these things should be happening."
Jennifer Waters, 6, went to the 9 a.m. Mass with questions.
"The little children -- are they with the angels?" she asked her mother while fiddling with a small plastic figurine on a pew near the back of the church. Her mother, Joan Waters, 45, assured her they were.
All around Newtown are reminders of the tragedy: 27 Christmas trees, donated anonymously, and decorated by residents; a collection of tiny tan and brown teddy bears sitting atop a stone ledge near the entrance to the school.
Gregor and Christina Aleksiejczuk adorned a community Christmas tree with 27 angels. Other ornaments and teddy bears on the tree also memorialized the victims.
The tree -- placed near the Stevenson Dam by the Riverside Fire Company in Oxford every year -- will showcase angel figures each year from now on, Christina Aleksiejczuk said.
"Every year we will be putting 27 angels on it so there will always be Christmas for them," Christina said. "I feel so much compassion for those parents who lost little ones."
Residents have shown solidarity in the wake of the shooting by changing their social media profile pictures to the town's seal.
The seal depicts a rooster and "1705," the year of the town's founding, ringed by the words "Town of Newtown." It has been showing up on social media websites such as Facebook, said Nicole Germak, 12, who attended Sandy Hill Elementary three years ago.
"Everyone knows one of the families that is a victim," Nicole said.
The grief extended beyond Newtown.
On Long Island, Peter Moloney, who co-owns Moloney's Lake Funeral Home & Cremation Center in Lake Ronkonkoma with his brother Dan, organized a candlelight memorial service for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in memory of the shooting victims.
"We got involved with this because we felt it was close to us," said Moloney, 48, of Patchogue. "I have kids. When I heard about it, I cried. I think the community and people need to feel like there's a place they can come together and pay tribute to these people." With Lauren R. Harrison, Tania E. Lopez, Candice Ruud, Nicholas Spangler, Brittany Wait, Patrick Whittle and AP