During the six years he was a priest at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, one of the Rev. John Inserra's greatest joys was interacting with the children in the church's preschool, opening the doors for the kids, greeting them in the morning, and visiting with them to sing songs.
There has been no joy in Inserra's return to Newtown from St. Mary Parish in Greenwich, where he was transferred in 2009.
Eight of the 20 children killed in the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School came from families that belong to the church. Over the last week, Inserra has made the 50-mile trip back to Newtown to attend the eight funerals and grieve with the families of the victims, as well as the other parishioners who have been struggling to cope with the tragedy during what should be a festive time of year.
"I feel like I had to do it because it's a close-knit community," said Inserra, 50, whose first assignment was at St. Rose of Lima. "I feel like it's my family."
Inserra also planned to spend Christmas in Newtown, making himself available to parents who need his support.
Inserra, who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and received the calling to become a priest after working for years in information technology, said it has been difficult for him to deal with the overwhelming sadness. What has helped him through it is seeing the strength of the victims' parents, especially the ones who have delivered eulogies.
"She said it was her son who gave her strength and the healing spirit," Inserra said of one grieving mother who spoke at her son's funeral.
"When they conclude, people stand and applaud," Weiss said of the parents who have recounted the short lives of their slain children.
In the midst of such sorrow, Inserra also had his Christmas duties back home in Greenwich. He didn't have much time, and wasn't in the right mood, to prepare for the 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass in the Greenwich Avenue church, which was filled with fiery poinsettias.
Instead of remarking on the tragedy, Inserra read a fictional story about a gas station owner named George, who had stopped celebrating Christmas after his wife's death. On Christmas Day, George helps a number of strangers, including a homeless man who turns out to be Jesus Christ. Jesus says that even without officially marking the holiday, George understands the true spirit of Christmas, and lives it each day.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook has certainly dimmed the lights on holiday celebrations.
"I'm sure it's changed everyone in Newtown, where their Christmas or Hanukkah will never be the same," Inserra said.
The loss of such young children may also cause some people to question their faith in God. Even Inserra, whose father died last year, has had a hard time grappling with the issue, but takes comfort in a simple statement.
"Jesus never promised us eternal life here on Earth," Inserra said.
Inserra admits these are not always very comforting words, especially when a loss is still fresh. He hopes it might help a little as the people of Newtown try to heal.
"It will bounce back," Inserra said of the community. "It's still one of the best places to live in the country."
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