NEWTOWN, Conn. – Newtown found healing and comfort on Sunday in the sanctuary of churches, as religious leaders and President Barack Obama tried to lessen the pain here through prayer and songs of hope.
“Lord, it’s been a horrendous weekend, but only you can replace our sorrow with inner peace,” Rev. Jim Solomon, of New Hope Community Church, told a small group of worshippers during a morning service.
His ministry – and many others across the stricken community – have been open nearly around the clock since Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people were gunned down by Adam Lanza, a Newtown resident.
A five-person Connecticut State Police SWAT team swept the church property Sunday afternoon following reports of an undisclosed threat. Authorities quickly evacuated the building. One woman fainted on the front lawn.
As this quiet city of 27,000, founded in 1711, prepared for an evening visit by Obama at an interfaith vigil at Newtown High School, people like Carol Tomassetti found touching ways to comfort so many still looking for answers.
“It’s just so sad that it’s come to this,” Tommasetti said in front of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, where she helped coordinate the distribution of stuffed animals to children who arrived there for Sunday Mass.
Obama told those at the vigil that Newtown is not alone, and that America feels their grief.
Below watch the latest video coverage of the shootings; videos will be updated throughout the day.
Minutes after Mass began at St. Rose, the church was evacuated and its campus shut down for the day following a reported bomb threat brought a state police SWAT team to the site.
Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the Bridgeport diocese that includes Newtown, said officials decided not to resume services on Sunday to "bring a sense of calm."
Police and church officials cordoned off the area to keep reporters away from mourners.
Tommasetti, who lives in Southbury, said 3,000 plush toys have been collected largely through donations local fire departments since Friday. They’re being given out for free.
“Little kids are afraid to come up to the pile after what’s happened, so let’s go out to them and show them there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Tommasetti, whose son-in-law is a volunteer at the Sandy Hook Fire Department, said. “We have to show the world that this is never going to happen again.”
St. Rose of Lima was host to a large vigil and Mass Friday night, where makeshift memorials cropped up on the church’s front lawn. On Sunday, those markers were dotted with bouquets.
“Pray for Us Twenty Angels,” a wooden display above one of the displays read, referencing the 20 children who were among the dead.
Solomon struck a note of fellowship and hope during his morning service, relating the story of Christmas and interspersing it with renditions of “Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”
“Help us persevere for those beautiful children who are now in your arms,” Solomon said. “The memory of them will be in our hearts. We’ll carry their spirits through our lives.”
Donnie Hatcher, of Glen Burnie, Md., a suburb of Baltimore, said he was compelled to visit Newtown this weekend to help uplift those who are in need of friendship.
“A tragic event can be what defines this community, or the church can be what defines this community. There’s a big task ahead, and I pray God will use the churches in this area to bring his love into the community,” he said. “The news vans and cameras will leave, but there still will be families who wake up to empty beds and things that remind them, and that’s when they’ll need help to sustain.”