Within hours of the shootings at Sandy Hook School on 12/14, St Rose of Lima Church was home to one of the first candlelight vigils in town. Thousands of people turned to Newtown’s Catholic church for spiritual guidance and leadership.
Parishioners and countless Catholics visiting Newtown continued to seek St Rose Church in the aftermath, finding strength from its leaders and members as they themselves counted on their faith to carry them through very dark hours.
To honor the selfless leadership St Rose continues to offer its community, The Knights of Columbus formally presented Monsignor Robert Weiss with its first Caritas Award Monday night. The award honors exemplary works of charity and service. The physical award, a silver medallion, features the image of The Good Samaritan on its face.
The award followed a Mass that celebrated the Feast of St Jerome, with Bishop Frank Caggiano serving as principal celebrant and homilist.
A donation of $100,000 to St Rose of Lima Catholic Parish was also made on Monday. The donation, said Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, is to “assist in the work of healing and hope that you have carried forward so wonderfully in the past months and to remember and really substantiate, in the words of our Holy Father, a church that is able to heal the wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.”
The Supreme Knight and Msgr Weiss offered their remarks during a brief ceremony following Mass.
“It is an honor to be with you, you who have made such an extraordinary witness to love, hope, and faith,” Mr Anderson said to all those in the sanctuary the evening of September 30. “In those terrible days last December, St Rose of Lima Parish provided an inspiring beacon of light in the midst of darkness.
“The hope that this parish was witness to was possible because of the heroic work of Monsignor Weiss, and his associates. Together in faith, they witnessed the power of love in the face of evil, as did so many lay members of this parish, and members of the Knights of Columbus from Newtown and beyond. This is the church that the world saw,” he said.
The formal award presentation and donation this week followed the announcement in August during the Knights of Columbus international convention of the organization’s new Caritas Awards.
The honor was given to Msgr Weiss and St Virgilius Knights of Columbus Council 185, located at St Rose.
Mr Anderson conferred the awards on August 6. During the convention, Mr Anderson paraphrased Pope Francis, explaining that “Monsignor Weiss was able ‘to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing his own strength and identity,’ which was no easy task under these circumstances.”
Also during the convention, Mr Anderson explained that the award goes to the heart of the Knights’ mission: “To come to the aid of neighbors and friends in their hour of need.”
Now, more than nine months since the shootings, he said, the time of need continues.
The sanctuary of St Rose was nearly full Monday night. The Most Reverend Frank Caggiano offered “a warm word of welcome” to the Knights and their families, and all in attendance, as they observed “nothing less than a historic event in the life of this parish, and the life of our diocese.”
Msgr Weiss, he pointed out, “is the very first recipient of this award, and, through him and by extension, the entire parish family of St Rose. Monsignor,” he said, turning to face the parish leader, “congratulations on this award.”
Msgr Weiss received a standing ovation at that time.
The Caritas Award, Bishop Caggiano said, is named after the great mystery of love.
“At the heart of our faith is a belief in a god who does not just love us, but has revealed himself as love himself, of community, of divine persons, who live in perfect love,” he said.
“The Caritas Award,” he later said, “is an award that is given to one man, but also to an entire family of faith. In this great community here at St Rose, it is valued upon, in quiet ways, this mystery of love.
The award’s presentation from the Knights, he said, is “tremendously meaningful.” The Knights of Columbus has always been an organization, said the bishop, that has “effectively willed the good of men.” The bishop is a Knight of the 4th Degree.
“We are very grateful,” he said, “for recognizing the good that occurs in this wonderful parish of St Rose and every Catholic community that lives the gospel faithfully.”
Prior to the Mass, Mr Anderson, Msgr Weiss and Bishop Caggiano welcomed a few members of the media as well as friends of the parish into the St Rose School Library.
“When we thought about doing this, St Rose came to mind immediately,” Mr Anderson said of the Caritas Award. “The lightbulb went on, everyone said ‘Of course.’”
“The security issues … and some of the longer-term counseling for students and families … all of that is within the scope of what we would like to see done,” he said of the monetary donation being made by the Knights.
Msgr Weiss confirmed Mr Anderson’s thoughts, saying that building security and long-term care for members of his parish is where much of the money will be directed.
“Security recommends double entries now, not to stop but to delay,” said Msgr Weiss. “We’re using funds for the new double entry at the school now.
“The rest we’re putting aside for some long-term needs,” he continued. “We’re really concerned that as these children get into that junior high age, we’re very concerned about their behaviors, and adolescence, and trauma, and effects. A seventh grader committed suicide shortly after this, and that really brought home to us the need to watch these children, and do what we can until they get to that age, but certainly during that age, just to keep them on a positive track.”
In his comments following Monday’s Mass, Msgr Weiss was joined by St Virgilius Knights of Columbus Grand Knight Timothy Haas.
“As you know, the Caritas Award was also given to our Council of Knights of Columbus,” said Msgr Weiss. “Tim and I walked up together [at the convention], and we stand here together tonight.”
Msgr Weiss acknowledged and thanked Mr Anderson, who he said “truly represents what we are called to be as Catholics [and] a remarkable gift to our church,” along with the members of the Supreme Council and state representatives who were in attendance.
He acknowledged the local Knights Council and their families, as well as the Squires (an international fraternity of young Catholic men, Newtown’s organization was reactivated in 2011). They all, he said, “truly speak to the heart of our faith.”
The Newtown Knights quickly got involved in assisting the parish and community in the days following 12/14. Their first priority was spiritual as the council established a program that asked people to pray a minimum of three Hail Marys on behalf of the victims and their families, the first responders and teachers, and the community. With the help of the Knights’ websites, the efforts reportedly spread and more than 105,000 people signed up, offering a total of more than 3.25 million prayers.
The Knights also served as ushers at eight funerals for children and helped in the parish when it was overwhelmed with messages of condolence and other logistical challenges.
Beyond that, Msgr Weiss said, the men, young men, and their families do “so many charitable deeds, hours and hours of service without seeking any recognition.
“I’m so proud to be able to share this award with them. They truly are living good Samaritans for all of us,” he said.
The staff of St Rose was also honored by their leader.
“No one does anything like this alone. Many of these staff ran out, just as Jesus called us, two by two, into some very broken situations, to work with families, to plan a funeral, to bring consolation of the faith of the gospel,” he said. Asking them to stand, he said, “You certainly deserve to be recognized.”
Monday evening was the second time the recently installed Bishop Caggiano was a guest of the Newtown parish. On Sunday afternoon, Bishop Caggiano visited St Rose Cemetery, Sandy Hook School, and Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue’s main station, saying blessings and prayers at each location.
St Rose parish then welcomed His Excellency for Sunday’s 5 pm Mass. A pair of fire trucks with their ladders extended were parked in front of the church, and a band performed on the lawn in front of the church as the bishop, parishioners, and several town leaders arrived for the service.
“Last night was what we needed,” Msgr Weiss said. “It was a really happy, upbeat celebration.”
A reception followed each of the special Mass events on Sunday and Monday.