Norwich - A memorial service Friday evening for two local homeless men who died in recent months was put on pause to pay tribute to the 26 people who were gunned down a week earlier at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, with lit candles, a poetry reading and a display of 26 angel wings on poster boards.
The annual service was part of National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, sponsored by the staff at the Norwich Generations Family Health Center and hosted by St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen.
In New London, nearly 50 people gathered inside the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church for a small ceremony to honor 39 of their homeless friends and neighbors who have died since 2006.
The timing of the Norwich event brought additional meaning, coming so soon after both the Newtown shooting and a decision last week by the Norwich planning commission denying a permit for St. Vincent to remain in its temporary quarters at the former St. Joseph School.
Generations staff and family members started the service by lighting 26 small candles for the victims of the Newtown shooting. A taller Christmas candle burned beside a photograph and painting of Robert Carnevale, a homeless man who died in October. The homeless memorial service honored both Carnevale and George Durr, both of whom died of cancer in recent months.
In her remarks during the service, Generations Manager Judi Gaudet pledged to St. Vincent Executive Director Jillian Corbin that homeless advocates would continue to support her ministry to feed and serve homeless people and others in need.
"It is our responsibility as a nation to recognize where there is need and offer a hand up," Gaudet said. "Sadly, there are others in the community who turn a blind eye. They say they do not want the soup kitchen here. We need to continue to support the diocese and St. Vincent de Paul Place."
The diocese plans to appeal the planning commission ruling to Superior Court.
About 40 people attended Friday's service, and more arrived for the fundraiser lasagna dinner to benefit the Norwich winter homeless hospitality center.
Friends and social workers recalled Durr and Carnevale.
Durr, who was in his 50s, had a cancerous facial tumor that went untreated for years, said Norwich Human Services Assistant Director Lee Ann Gomes. Durr was a skilled mason who left his mark in construction of many Norwich buildings and local sidewalks before he succumbed to his illness. Gomes said her office was able to find supportive housing for him before he died.
Carnevale, 64, died Oct. 6 after a battle with lung cancer, Gaudet said. Friends who attended Friday's ceremony recalled Carnevale as an outgoing, caring man who helped at St. Vincent whenever he could.
"He was a kind person to everybody," said Judith Hersey, a friend of Carnevale's and also homeless and living in a local shelter. "He was always helping when he could. When cancer takes your body, there's nothing you can do."
Hersey said there are many more homeless people who have died in the region and were not recognized during Friday's service.
Deacon Peter Gill of Middlefield, a volunteer chef at St. Vincent, asked the audience to think about who might be out in the cold, alone and forgotten.
"Imagine no one has said your name in years," Gill said. "No one has hugged you in decades. Imagine no one knows you died."
Gill said homeless people not only live in shelters or in cars but also wander from place to place, sleeping on tables or in doorways. "And so we pray, because we must pray," Gill said, asking God to "help us in your work to help the homeless and work for the rights of all."
'A day-to-day struggle'
Red and orange hats were placed outside the All Souls church with the names of the homeless and friends of the homeless, which included Milton Cook, Eunice Waller and former All Souls Rev. Emmett Jarrett.
It was a sad night for the friends of the deceased, as some learned for the first time that their friends had died.
Near the end of the ceremony, a young woman stood up, not to recognize a dear friend but to share her own story.
Samantha Hendrick, 25, is pregnant with her third child, a girl.
She's due in three weeks and said Friday evening that when she was a little girl, she would look out of the back seat of her parents' car, see homeless people on the street and say, "Look at those bums."
"But now I'm homeless," Hendrick said.
She grew up in Lyme, "a little teeny town," she said, where the father of her two older daughters lives. Her daughters live with him in the house he shares with his mother.
"I grew up in a church, and we would hand blankets out to the homeless people we saw, but now I know, it's a day-to-day struggle."
Staff Writer Julianne Hanckel contributed to this report.