NEWTOWN -- On Sunday morning at Newtown Congregational Church on West Street, a block from the landmark flagpole, it was worship as usual -- except it wasn't.

The sanctuary was standing room only. Some 350 to 400 parishioners and guests, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen.-elect Chris Murphy, filled pews on the main floor and in the balcony. More than 100 children watched as the Advent wreath was lighted around a table full of candles.

All present were eager, even desperate, to hear and recite prayer, sing familiar hymns, listen to Scripture and absorb words of solace as this community strives to cope with the unthinkable -- a massacre Friday morning of innocent children and the adults who taught them at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"God was there at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday. God's was the first heart broken," declared the Rev. Matthew Crebbin during an Advent sermon oriented to the tragedy just 11 days before Christmas. "God didn't will this evil to happen.''

The flocking to worship of all kinds was a pattern in Newtown -- packed parking lots in all churches and an ecumenical prayer service at Edmond Town Hall on Main Street -- and throughout the region and state.

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What others said Pope Benedict XVI told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square, "I assure the families of the victims, especially those who lost a child, of my closeness in prayer. May the God of consolation touch their hearts and ease their pain." At Wyoming Presbyterian Church in Millburn, N.J., the Rev. E. Nicholas Van Gombos gathered the young children together at the front of the sanctuary and delicately spoke about "the sad thing that happened" in Connecticut and prayed with them for Jesus to send his love to the families. Members of a Sikh community say the support they got after a gunman killed six people at a Milwaukee-area temple four months ago was invaluable -- and they want to extend that same support to victims of the Connecticut school shooting. More than 50 people prayed Saturday at the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin in Brookfield. Those who attended signed a card for victims in Connecticut. At the top, the card said, "We stand together."

Newtown Congregational parishioner Elizabeth Anderson, 20, said she has never seen such crowds but assumes that people, like her, are seeking a "peace" in such a chaotic and confusing time. Anderson, who graduated from Newtown High in the same class as the shooter, Adam Lanza, said she has relied on her faith to "seek answers" to hard questions as well as to find forgiveness.

Through her faith, Anderson said, she knows "God didn't make this happen."

Deacon Patricia Hubert, a friend of slain school psychologist Mary Sherlach, said the service emphasized what this community is all about: love.

"When evil happens, it takes your breath away," Hubert said.

Newtown will heal because of the love within its confines and beyond, she said.

"This is the type of community we have. This is who we are," Hubert said.

The Rev. Karen Karpow, pastor at Danbury United Methodist Church, said she finds that only through faith can any kind of solace or meaning be found in the midst of a tragedy, particularly one of this magnitude. In her church, the names of all the victims of the tragedy were read aloud.

"The prospect is so bleak (without faith)," Karpow said. "At least as a people of faith we have something to say in the face of this kind of evil."

"We don't actually have control over very much, but we always have a choice to respond," said Karpow, who with members of her congregation attended an early service at the Newtown United Methodist Church where the theme was "heartbreak and hope."

Crebbin said the outpouring of love and support is unprecedented but soul-soothing as people yearn to stand solidly with those they do not know. President Barack Obama's participation in an interfaith vigil Sunday night was watched in homes around the world.

The barrage of messages, electronic and handwritten, and deliveries of everything from water bottles to teddy bears is almost beyond what many can manage, Crebbin and other clergy said.

One poster at exit 9 on Interstate 84 read, "Pray for Newtown," with a bright red heart at the bottom. At the intersection of Route 25 and Johnnie Cake Lane, a red-dyed sheet bore the same message.

"Our hearts are broken, our spirits battered, but we gather," Crebbin said. "We're one community ... we're committed to walk together as God's people as never before."

"Because we love these children we lost, and the adults, we love their families ... lives scarred by the images and sounds," he added. "We suffer this day because we love. God is with us in this time and place."; 860-354-2274;