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.
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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.