Within hours after the Sandy Hook shootings, Newtown's clergy dived into the midst of the tragedy and quickly became the face of strength and solace for the grieving community.
But who comforts the comforters?
Mark Moore, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Newtown, turned to a friend who is a minister in Middletown. That minister's son was nearly beaten to death and suffered brain trauma in a random attack on a street in California.
"She knows the horror, the grief," Moore said. "She's been a tremendous help. The question that people ask me I have to ask myself, 'Why did this happen?'"
Across this community of 27,000 people, congregations and the broader faith community are rallying to support priests and ministers as they preside over funerals, comfort families whose children survived and reassure their flocks. But those who counsel the clergy through crises say it will be weeks before members of the clergy are able to step back and start to understand how it has affected them.
Moore tells the members of his congregation, whose church is next door to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, that the forces of good will overcome evil; that they can look to God for strength and healing; and that they can be sure that God had no hand in the violence.
But Moore said he strugged with the shock: "It's overwhelming. I've often gone home and thrown up and had difficulty sleeping. I tried to listen to music to calm myself down."
The clergyman with the highest profile is Monsignor Robert Weiss, "Father Bob," at St. Rose of Lima Church, where there have been at least eight funerals, all for first-graders. On two days last week, there were back-to-back funerals, with barely an hour between them to move hundreds of mourners in and out of church. Wakes attended by hundreds were held in the church hall.
William Calderara, a St. Rose trustee and a parishioner for two decades, said Weiss had deep connections with the children who died, having celebrated many of their baptisms and had "just looked into their eyes" a few days earlier.
"Sometimes, it's just walking up and giving him a hug," Calderara said. "For anybody this is emotionally and physically draining and to go through that day after day. ... We're asking him what he needs, just showing concern. Like [asking], 'Are you getting enough sleep?'"
Weiss has drawn support from his fellow priests, some traveling from as far away as New York and New Jersey to support him. At the funeral Masses, there have been as many as 10 priests assisting in the service, some who have served at St. Rose previously, according to Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Priests also are paired with other priests who act as "confessors, helping to find spiritual guidance, Wallace said.
"It's a place to confess sins, shore themselves up spiritually," Wallace said. Weiss "seems to be coping, but he will have difficult days when this is over."
Calderara said the parish has taken on some of the logistics of the funerals and wakes, typically overseen by Weiss.
The church's Knights of Columbus council has set up a "command center" to coordinate the hundreds of mourners who must get in and out of parking lots, which is especially difficult during back-to-back funerals. Others make sure extended family members and close friends have seats near the front of the church.
"Most of the time the logistics are handled by the priest," Calderara said. "On a normal week, there might be a couple of funerals, maybe none at all. It's rare to have that entire church packed wall-to-wall, with people standing."
Listening To Own Message
Pastor Rob Morris, at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, who presided over the funerals of two children last week, described several ways he has found support — including listening to the message that he is delivering.
"It's a blessing to be able to minister words of certain hope in Christ into these circumstances," Morris said. "These are the same words I need to be reminded of. ... When I'm leading prayer services, I'm weeping my way through them, too."
Morris, 32, is the father of two boys, 3 and 6. But he has not yet had time to grieve as a parent living in the town, and has not yet visited the memorials to the victims.
He has, however, spoken with two counselors who are ordained ministers working as therapists. And he has spoken with many fellow pastors, especially at the regional and national levels of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, where, he said, "The outpouring of support has been overwhelming."
His wife, Christy, has been a huge support as have his children — just being able to see them, he said.
And he emphasized the support of the congregation of 450 people, which he joined less than a year ago, in January. "I feel like I'm ministering to 100 or more and I've got 100 or more ministering to me," he said. "I like that ratio."
Local counseling experts who have worked with the clergy following crises say there is only so much members of the clergy can do for themselves right now.
"The demand on the clergy is such that they can't deal with their own feelings right now," said Shelvy Wyatt, who along with her husband, Jim, runs Transformational Counseling Ministries Inc. in Newtown. "They don't really have the time to process it all."
Wyatt said she expects that she and her husband will be counseling members of the clergy early in the new year.
"Many times we've counseled pastors dealing with depression," Wyatt said. "Depression has a lot to do with internalized anger. We need to be angry at evil and violence. Sometimes, we recommend that they go on medication."
It's difficult to say what the ultimate effect on the clergy will be, Wyatt said, because the magnitude of the violence at the school is new territory in Connecticut.
Matt Crebbin, senior minister at Newtown Congregational Church, said his congregation didn't lose any children in the shootings. But Crebbin said he has been meeting often with families who have children at the school and with first-reponders who arrived at the school.
Crebbin said he is drawing support from his parish, with volunteers managing the huge volume of donations, including 20,000 stuffed toy animals. Thirty ministers from the United Church of Christ met with Crebbin last week: "We had lunch together, prayed together and hugged each other."
As of late last week, Crebbin said, he resumed his morning workout playing basketball three times a week.
"You need to do that," Crebbin said. "You need to do those things for body and spirit. You can't help other people if you haven't helped yourself."
The clergy has a responsibility to be strong for those who are seeking strength and comfort, Crebbin said.
"There are moments when it is not appropriate to grieve," Crebbin said. "It doesn't mean there isn't any time for me to grieve. For us, as ministers, our own grief is acceptable and needed to care for others who are grieving."
Courant staff writer Dan Haar contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times