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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Newtown's pastor perfect for the role as healer, guide

“We’re giving you a world that’s a mess.”

Monsignor Robert Weiss would know.

His ministry for the past 312 months has been much different than his first 14 years at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.

Weiss has been hands-on since the first few minutes after the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which sits around the corner from Weiss’ massive church complex.

He hurried to Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co. upon hearing of the shooting, hoping to offer comfort to the children displaced by a madman.

He stayed for hours, consoling and grieving with parents whose children never made it out of their classroom that cold winter morning. In some cases, he even delivered the news that their first-grader would never be coming home.

Weiss’ work was just beginning in those hours.

He went on to handle services for 10 of the 26 victims of the massacre (eight children and two teachers), hosting both the calling hours and funerals at St. Rose.

And, since then, he’s spent a lot of time talking about choices.

“Evil lasted but a few seconds, and then the goodness started flowing in,” Weiss said March 23 to a congregation gathered at St. Rose for the third and final confirmation ceremony for the parish’s eighth-graders.

My niece, Erin, sat in front of me in her teal dress and way-too-high shoes, listening as her pastor urged her and her contemporaries to make good choices as they begin living their lives as adults in the eyes of the church.

“Which will you choose,” Weiss asked, “good or evil?”

There’s certainly been a lot of good in Sandy Hook and its neighboring Newtown since the morning of Dec. 14.

Erin’s younger sister, Emily, showed off a collection of stuffed animals she received in the weeks after the shooting in her school. Erin said there were so many sent in from around the country, they were piled up in the hallways of the middle school where so many schoolchildren had gone to seek counseling and sessions with therapy dogs.

Someone even sent money for the town to open an arcade for the town’s children.

Despite the kind gestures, it’s impossible to forget the evil of that day.

As we drove back to my brother’s home in Sandy Hook after the ceremony, we passed the house where one of the first-grade victims lived. It’s easy to spot, with candles constantly lit in the windows of what was once the little girl’s bedroom.

Then, just up the street sits Misty Vale Deli, where another of the victims had his last meal on Dec. 14. He’d done what he had so many times before — walked in, headed to the counter and ordered a breakfast sandwich for himself and coffee for his dad.

A trip past the Sandy Hook firehouse, too, will remind you, as you note the 26 copper stars affixed to the roof of the building. At the Jan. 26 ceremony dedicating the first permanent memorial to the shooting victims, Weiss spoke in historic terms.

“People looked to the stars before recorded time as a source of strength, a source of guidance, to show them where to go,” Weiss said, in quotes taken from a story in The News-Times of Danbury, Conn. “Let these stars lay a path for us to follow into the future.”

Weiss’ focus clearly is there in his dealings with the area’s youngsters.

“I love looking at The (Newtown) Bee, because I see you all in it,” Weiss said to the confirmation candidates about an hour before the service began, in describing the town’s weekly newspaper, which has served the area since 1877.

“Whether it’s for theater or sports or for your school work, you make us at St. Rose of Lima proud. And, because so many families belong to St. Rose, we are Newtown.”

Weiss went on to give the youngsters a call to action.

“I’m not naive enough to not know that you all don’t go to church,” he said. “All I can hope is that this will be the event that will bring you and your families back.”

When he was honored at the end of the ceremony with presentation of a gift that had been sent in from New Orleans, Weiss relished the chance to go off script to thank those who had contributed to helping the church fulfill its mission during the darkest days.

Tears flowed soon, as he talked about the Knights of Columbus members who, as he said, “stepped up and were there from the very beginning and provided whatever we needed.”

“They were here every day. They made sure before every funeral mass that there were boxes of tissues in every pew, that there were fresh flowers.”

Weiss has received a lot of attention in the media since Dec. 14, and his focus has remained on the task at hand — leading his town through its most difficult days.

It’s easy to see Newtown and its neighboring Sandy Hook are in good hands.

Yet, as I watched Weiss speak to the teenagers last week, I couldn’t help but think back to my earliest exposure to him — when he celebrated the first communion masses for all three of my nieces.

Toward the end of those masses, the youngsters would march up to the altar and sing “The Butterfly Song.” Weiss stood at the side, encouraging those in the congregation to join in and perform the arm movements, too.

In the days after the shooting, each time Weiss appeared on a news show to discuss the community’s devastating loss, I’d think back to that song, and then remember that some of the little ones who were lost would have been singing that song with Weiss in just over a year.

But now, when I think about Weiss, I fast-forward to the moment when he’ll finally get to gather those angels in heaven for their turn on the altar.

“All around the world, children love to see, different colored caterpillars walking up a tree ...
I’m ready to change. I’m ready to spread my wings to fly, and glorify the garden of our Lord.”
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, March 8, 2013

It's easy to Lighten Up when you have a Good partner

This isn’t a restaurant review, but it probably will seem like it.

It’s going to be about food, excellent service and a pretty awesome area business owner.
Darn it. I should have said he was a “Good” owner.

Well, anyway, that’s how I’d describe Cabana’s Island Restaurant leader Mike Good.

I first met Good in the fall, when he said he wanted to provide meals for the participants in Lighten Up.

I broke it to him immediately that he volunteered for the first season of our weight loss contest that we weren’t going to turn anyone away.

He asked what’s the most we’ve ever had apply. I probably whispered the number 45, but I’m not sure he heard me.

He didn’t flinch.

He just put his chef of 12 years, Rick Pachay, on the job of creating a menu with dishes with fewer than 600 calories.

For the record, Good also didn’t flinch when I broke the news that 56 people were starting the contest with the Jan. 19 weigh-in.

Good said he got involved for very personal reasons.

“I know what a battle it is to lose weight,” he said. “I was working out with Jaime (Brenkus, owner of LEAN Living, one of the sponsors for Lighten Up in 2013), and he mentioned this contest, and I told him that I almost put my name in a couple times. I thought about it, and talked about it, but I never did it.

“I get embarrassed too easily, so I’m not going to do it.”

Good said he’s been battling his weight for years.

“I’ll lose 60, then gain 30,” he said.

Good talked about how expensive it is to eat healthy.

“That’s why you have so many overweight people,” he said. “You feed a couple of kids on a couple of pizzas and chocolate milk for $10.

“It’s not necessarily healthy, but they’ll eat it.”

He said he and his family — wife, Kelly, and their three children, ages 21, 18 and 13 —  don’t eat that way at their home in Chardon.

“I have a wife who eats healthy 90 percent of the time, and I do, too,” said Good, who admitted that his weakness is bread.

“I could sit down and eat a loaf of bread three times a day and be happy.”

I just hope the 48 contestants still taking part in Lighten Up in 2013 didn’t see that.

I’m hoping that instead, they’re focused on Good’s other menu — the one he created for them at Cabana’s.

That’s right — the meals Good said he wanted to feed the contestants come from the “2013 Lean Menu” he debuted in January at both his Mentor and Chardon eateries.

There are nine items, all featuring various protein selections.

In my unscientific study, the Pesto Parmesan Filet is the most popular. It’s described thusly on the menu: “Seasoned and grilled, finished with a light pesto sauce, served with roasted potatoes and broccoli.”

It looks even better in person, I’ve noted as I’ve stood by countless tables as servers have come to drop off entrees during the Tuesday night dinner hours.

I’m not a big beef fan, so I’ve tried other dishes, and have enjoyed them all. My favorite, though, has been the Chicken Scallopini. It’s, according to the menu, “lightly floured and seasoned, simmered with fresh basil, broccoli, garlic, mushroom and onion, in a light lemon and garlic sauce, served with roasted potatoes.”


Oh, I should point out something important. The filet as listed above is 581 calories. The chicken dish is 455 calories.

But don’t think for a minute that you’re missing out on anything. This past Tuesday, I had a garden salad and the scallopini and left Cabana’s too full to think about any dessert.

Good said the lean menu is doing well at both locations, with about 100 meals served per week. I noted this week that there are plenty of choices for those who wish to stay true to Lenten Friday pledges.

My contestants have raved about their meals on our group page on Facebook. They arrange meetups in the dining room and there’s lots of joking between the tables across the room as they’re enjoying dinner.

It’s a true family atmosphere, and it’s made even more enjoyable because of excellent service from Good’s young staff. They’re friendly and helpful, and mindful of the goal of those who take part in the Tuesday dinner. During my first visit, our server took care to check whether I wanted the cheese and croutons that normally come on the side salad.

I said at the beginning that this isn’t a restaurant review. It really isn’t. If it were, it would have been in Friday’s edition and in a different section.

But that’s not going to stop me from praising Cabana’s cook for offering those who are calorie conscious some options for their meals, and the staff for the gracious way they handle guests who might otherwise get a little picky.

As I’ve learned over the past few months, though, it’s a Good thing.
Twitter: @Lauranh