As he stood near the front door of the Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of Dec. 14, shattered glass near his feet, Monsignor Robert Weiss knew he was as close to evil as he would ever get.
Newtown police officers had asked the pastor of nearby St. Rose of Lima church to go into the school and bless the bodies of the 26 people, including 20 children, massacred only moments earlier by Adam Lanza.
Weiss, known as Father Bob to almost everyone in the tight-knit community, was the first religious person on the scene. He said he felt an obligation to the souls lost inside until he got close enough to see heavily armed police officers still running into the school.
"Some of the officers had told me that I didn't want to see what was in those classrooms,'' Weiss said. "I didn't think there was a need to go into the school.''
Weiss said a prayer for the dead near the front entrance and then went back up to the nearby firehouse. It was then that he began to realize the enormity of the tragedy facing the families of the dead and the town itself.
The monsignor stayed at the firehouse all day and then went back to his church, located not more than a mile from the school, to help lead an impromptu memorial service that drew more than 1,000 people.
"I really wasn't sure what I was going to say, but I kept thinking love has to be here," Weiss said recently during an interview at the church rectory.
Weiss told the crowd, which included the Gov, Dannel P. Malloy, that "evil visited us but we have to get through it and find some good."
It became a theme for the town. Variations of what Weiss said that night about "choosing good" are now on bumper stickers, signs and logos.
Nearly three months since the massacre, Weiss remains a central figure — as a confidant for families still struggling with losing their children, and as a calming influence by town officials who have asked him to serve as one of five committee members who will determine how to distribute the more than $10 million collected through the United Way after the tragedy.
Weiss gets invited to events every day. He passed up a chance to meet the Boston Bruins to sit with The Courant. He has been interviewed by Katie Couric and British newspapers.
The attention has left the 66-year-old, who has been at St. Rose for 13 years and is celebrating his 40th anniversary in the priesthood this year, more than a little overwhelmed and uncomfortable — particularly since he still is having a hard time processing what happened at the Sandy Hook school.
"The whole thing is unreal to me," Weiss said fighting back tears. "Many times I've thought, 'How in God's name could this happen?' We all have horrible things to deal with in our lives but nothing this horrible."
Then The Phone Rang
The morning of Dec. 14 started like almost every other for Weiss. He went to the Sandy Hook Diner and had a plate of his favorite French toast. With no parish Mass planned that Friday morning, the priest was looking forward to a quiet morning in the rectory "wrapping Christmas presents."
Then the phone rang.
It was the Newtown Police Department, ordering him to lockdown the St. Rose School because there had been a report of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. As it happened, all 359 students at the Catholic K-8 school were in the church for their weekly Mass when Weiss walked in and told school administrators to put students in lockdown.
Weiss then drove toward Sandy Hook Elementary, stopping at the firehouse when he saw teachers trying to organize students by grade after bringing them down from the school.
"I had several kids that knew me come up and give me a hug. There was one little girl who grabbed me by a belt loop in back and wouldn't let go. They were looking for comfort," Weiss said.
Weiss then ran down to the elementary school parking lot, where he found "organized chaos." Emergency medical personnel were waiting for victims that never came. Officers were still arriving and running in and out of the school, parents were looking for their children.
When he went back to the firehouse, Weiss saw one group of parents being led to a separate room. Many were still hopeful their children were alive.
"There were all sorts of rumors that children were running around in the woods and the police were still finding them or that some of them had been taken to the hospital and were still alive,'' Weiss said.
As the day wore on it became apparent that some children weren't coming home. Weiss said he saw "love at its best" in that room.
"There were parents hugging each other,'' Weiss said. "Many of the children were good friends and the parents kept talking about this image of all of them holding hands as they went to heaven together."
Later that night, following the memorial service, Weiss accompanied a state trooper to two homes — just to be there when the families were officially informed their child was dead. There were eight children whose families were parishioners of St. Rose, as is the family of slain aide Mary Anne Murphy.
The next day, Weiss visited each family to check on them. Back at the church, flowers were arriving by the bunches and people were lighting candles faster than staff could put more out. A makeshift memorial was rapidly growing in front of a statute on church grounds.
"People were walking around almost numb with grief and despair and they arrived by the hundreds at the church,'' said Michael Tintrup, executive director of Catholic Charities, who arrived with his team Saturday morning. "Monsignor Weiss was magnificent. He was everywhere; a real presence in the church when people needed it most."
'Where Are We Safe?'
Tintrup had never met Weiss until that day. What impressed him the most was that the families of the slain children specifically wanted to talk only to "Father Bob."
On the Sunday after the shootings, Weiss was in the rectory while the mid-morning Mass was underway when a phone call came in from a man threatening to blow up the church. Weiss ran out and got a state police officer who was directing traffic.
Weiss said the trooper had them put the caller on speakerphone and let him talk. Authorities listened for clues as to whether he was a friend of Lanza.
"He kept repeating that 'I am coming there to finish the job that Adam started,''' Weiss said. "He was obviously disoriented, but the threat was clear."
The monsignor ran to the church and walked up to the vestibule. He calmly told people that they needed to evacuate. As nervous churchgoers were leaving the church, SWAT team members in full gear were coming in.
"I think that was one of my lowest moments. I just kept thinking, 'Where are we safe?'" Weiss said. "These people had already been through so much. How much more can they be expected to take?"
On Monday, Weiss sent teams of church staff to meet with each family and begin preparations for the funerals. Murphy was buried in New York, but the rest of the parishioners had funerals at St. Rose.
"I did every wake and every funeral. It was a long week,'' Weiss said. He got his inspiration from the parents of the dead children. In all but one case, a parent of the child gave a eulogy.
"I thought if these parents have the strength to do what they had done than I can certainly do it, too,'' Weiss said.
The last to be buried was Josephine Gay, whose family decided to have her buried near their new home in Massachusetts rather than in Newtown. Her father had just gotten a new job and the family was supposed to move permanently to Massachusetts only weeks later.
Weiss was driven to Massachusetts by a state trooper. As they passed through each town in Massachusetts, the police department from that community had a motorcycle officer join the procession into the cemetery.
"That is when I truly realized how big this was and how much of an impact what had happened was having on everyone, not just our community,'' Weiss said.
Not A 'Perverted Lottery'
Weiss wrote a letter to each family in his parish about three weeks after the massacre. Many have called to see how he is doing, which amazes him given what they lost. Weiss had been ill himself just weeks before the massacre, which many of the parishioners knew.
Weiss was recently appointed to be one five people on the board of The Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation Inc., which will determine how the more than $10 million donated to the United Way fund since the massacre will be spent.
Newtown Selectmen Will Rodgers said Father Bob was a unanimous choice to serve the long-term assignment.
"He brings a lot of sophistication to the table that might be a little unusual for a small-town priest,'' Rogers said. "I also think everyone recognized that his parish was the greatest single religious community effected by this tragedy."
There has been criticism by the daughter of Principal Dawn Hochsprung over how the United Way, which had volunteered to handle the money, was handling the process of providing funds to the families of the 26 school personnel and children killed at Sandy Hook.
Weiss said the new board is still trying to get a handle on all of the funds that were started. Members have met with officials from other communities where mass shootings occurred, such as Littleton, Colo., where Columbine High School is located, and Virginia Tech, which is based in Blacksburg, Va.
"This is not going to be some sort of perverted lottery for the families,'' Weiss said. "It is important that their needs and the needs of the community as a whole are taken care of."
While serving on that board promises to be a long and potentially difficult process, Weiss said it pales compared to the weeks after the massacre.
Christmas, less than two weeks after the massacre, was a difficult time. It was made more difficult at St. Rose because one of the students killed, Olivia Engel, was supposed to play an angel in the church's living nativity held on Christmas Eve.
Church officials considered canceling the pageant, but ultimately it went on and Olivia's parents attended. At midnight Mass that night, one of the most heavily attended masses of the year, Weiss struggled to come up with words for a homily. Then he thought of Olivia and her family.
"We have seen evil and we have seen good,'' Weiss said. "This shooting will make us who we will be going forward. It is woven into our lives forever and the aftermath of that evil has brought forth the best of this town to the world.''Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times