Organizers for the dedication of the Rock of Angels granite memorial, envisioned by Florida resident Rich Gray and presented to the people of Newtown by craftspeople and residents of Maine, planned a low key ceremony. That is what was delivered early Monday evening, August 12.
Approximately 100 people attended the brief dedication ceremony behind St John’s Episcopal Church, where the 10-foot by 4-foot stone memorial has found its permanent home, nestled into a natural amphitheater of trees and shrubbery.
The Rock of Angels began its final journey to Sandy Hook Saturday morning, August 10, in Ellsworth, Maine, pausing seven stops later overnight in Portsmouth, N.H., and continuing on to Boston and Providence on Sunday.
The convoy was made up of Mr Gray and his 7-year-old daughter, Jayden; his parents; the craftsman of the memorial’s base, Adam Meyer; and several more supporters from Maine. They followed the Rock of Angels, transported by Chianbro Equipment LLC, which donated all services, into Hartford for the Power of Peace event on Sunday.
What seemed like an odd diversion on Monday morning, to Bethlehem, Conn., was not so peculiar, Mr Gray explained Monday afternoon, as he took a break from the installation of the memorial behind St John’s.
“Rachel D’Avino [one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook School 12/14], was from Bethlehem,” Mr Gray said. “Her sister and her best friend actually drove up to Cutler, Maine, to see [the memorial] in progress,” he said.
Because the official town position is that no decision has yet been made as to a permanent 12/14 memorial, Mr Gray, like all of the others who have suggested memorials for the town, had been told that the Rock of Angels would go into storage if and when it arrived in Newtown.
“Bethlehem had offered to let the memorial stay there; they had a place set up for it, until Newtown had a place for it,” Mr Gray said. “Until St John’s stepped up last week, we thought we would be bringing it to Bethlehem. Now, here we are, in the community [of Sandy Hook]. It is such an honor to be here, and to have the memorial finally home,” he said.
As final preparations for the ceremony were set in place, groups of people drifted in. Some clustered about a Dodge Durango, its black body painted with the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, green and white.
“It’s my personal vehicle,” said Kevin Ward of Hamden, who stood nearby. “My wife and Victoria Soto [a teacher killed 12/14] grew up together. This is a way to give back. I’ve been into cars all my life, so this is what I could do,” he said of the custom paint job.
Mr Ward said he has been retrofitting the truck since December 14.
“We drive it every day. Every day, we ride with the 26 angels,” Mr Ward said.
Mr Ward drove the “Sandy Hook Tribute Durango” to Ellsworth Saturday morning, and had accompanied the stone all the way back to Sandy Hook, as the lead vehicle in the convoy.
Monday evening, he displayed on the windshield a banner signed by the state troopers who had escorted the convoy through all of the states, those who had worked to create the memorial, all who traveled with the convoy, and many of the firefighters and first responders they encountered on the journey.
Don Cummings of Harrington, Maine, was one of several Maine residents at the service.
“People along the way helped us out, quite a bit,” Mr Cummings said. “We wouldn’t be here, except for them. Firefighters and first responders cared for us, and let us sleep in their firehouses,” he said.
His only disappointment, he said, was in coming through Connecticut. It was the only state in which the convoy was not allowed to travel with its running lights on, and the state trooper assigned did not turn on his headlights until the group was nearly into Southbury.
The convoy was greeted by a small group of residents and supporters who had positioned themselves on were the River Road overpass, just north of the Newtown town line, as the convoy arrived in the area via I-84 Monday afternoon. Waving signs and blowing air horns, about a dozen people waited for on the bridge for nearly 45 minutes, to welcome the monument and those traveling with it.
A few hours later, a color guard was advanced by Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company Firefighters Andrew Ryan and Erica Knapp, and Sullivan (Me.) Deputy Fire Chief Ken Gray, brother of Rich Gray to begin the dedication.
Bruce Moulthrop, warden of St John’s Episcopal Church, offered welcoming remarks as the 6 pm ceremony got under way.
“Tonight, the rock has a home,” Mr Moulthrop said, adding that the Rock of Angels is a gift to Newtowners through the donations from people worldwide.
A benediction by Father Mark Moore of St John’s preceded comments by Newtown Selectman James Gaston, who welcomed all “on behalf of the Newtown community.”
“To all who have participated … your kindness, commitment, generosity, and efforts are appreciated,” Mr Gaston said. The Rock of Angels, he went on to say, is more than a gift of granite and rock, but a gift of love, compassion, and community.
Not all, but some members of the Newtown and Sandy Hook communities are ready to commemorate 12/14 in a permanent way, Mr Gaston noted. It is due to those private community members ready to receive a memorial that the Rock of Angels has been installed in Sandy Hook. It will be a place in which people may find solace, he said, and he thanked all who participated.
For Rich Gray, it was an emotional moment. Earlier Monday, he said, “Coming into Sandy Hook today, when I saw the Sandy Hook/Newtown exit sign all I could think about was 12/14.”
As he explained to the crowd gathered before the memorial, still shrouded in a moving quilt, “This is one of the hardest days of my entire life, to stand here, in front of you. I had no connection to Newtown when [12/14] happened. I have a 7-year-old daughter, is all I know. It is,” he said, “an honor and pleasure to bring this to you.”
With that, and the assistance of his daughter, Jayden, and Mr Meyer, Mr Gray removed the quilt, revealing the granite memorial. The 26 steel angels embedded in the base of the memorial, he pointed out, are lit at night. Twenty will emit a gentle green glow, six will emit a white light. The upper part of the memorial, on which the names of those lost 12/14 are etched, along with the words “In Loving Memory” and “Forever In Our Hearts…Always In Our Minds,” will also be lit every night.
St John’s Episcopal Church supplied power to light the memorial the night of the installation, but Mr Moulthrop said until organizers are able to convert the memorial to use solar power, it will not be lit at night. Information on fundraising for solar capability can be found by joining the closed Facebook group WE ARE NEWTOWN.
There were tears among those in attendance, and many solemn faces, and a quiet clapping of appreciation.
Stepping aside, Mr Gray invited all to come forward, to touch the memorial. Children are welcome to play on the solid structure, he said.
In moments, the stone was engulfed by the crowd, some gently running their fingers over the names etched in childlike scrawl, painted in primary colors, five within each of four hearts: Benjamin Wheeler, James Mattoli, Chase Kowalski, Noah Pozner, Jack Pinto; Grace McDonnell, Josephine Gay, Avielle Richman, Allison Wyatt, Emilie Parker; Ana Marquez-Greene, Jessica Rekos, Caroline Previdi, Daniel Barden, Jesse Lewis; Catherine Hubbard, Charlotte Bacon, Madeleine Hsu, Dylan Hockley, and Olivia Engel. A large angel is centered between the hearts, where letters painted gold spell out the names of the fallen staff members: Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Victoria Soto, Mary Sherlach, and Rachel D’Avino.
Three first grade teachers from Head O’ Meadow Elementary School were among those at the Monday evening ceremony.
“It’s beautiful,” commented Carol Howard. “What I’m feeling is that it is such a lasting tribute to the 26 lost on 12/14,” she said, visibly moved by the sight of the memorial.
Anne Annesley and Barbara Beckerle agreed. “It’s breathtaking,” Ms Annesley said.
“It is a beautiful labor of love. Just the concept of someone caring that much, to conceive it and do all of that work,” Ms Beckerle said, “is beautiful.”
Sandy Hook resident JoAnn Hornak’s eyes ran freely with tears as she embraced Mr Gray, following the dedication. “I am so pleased [the memorial] had a place to come to. I hope it will be a source of comfort,” Ms Hornak said.
The sun lowered in the sky, and shadows reached toward the rock.
Children stretched across the base, hung over the top of the memorial, and squatted beside it, a scene that Rich Gray said, was meant to be.
“I am,” Mr Gray said, “so glad we could bring [the Rock of Angels] to you.”
He hopes that one day, family members of those who died 12/14 might come to visit the Rock of Angels.
He understands that healing takes place at different rates, for different people, in different ways.
“Maybe not today,” he said. “Maybe not tomorrow, but I hope someday they will all get a chance to see it.”
The Rock of Angels is open to the public for quiet reflection. It is located on the hill immediately behind St John’s Episcopal Church, 5 Washington Avenue in Sandy Hook Center.
This story was amended August 15, 2013, to reflect new information on the night lighting of the memorial.