Connecticut Shooting: Grief and Disbelief at Vigils for Victims

12/15/2012 at 09:45 AM EST

Connecticut Shooting: Grief, Disbelief at Vigils
St. Rose of Lima Church
Andrew Gombert/EPA/Landov
A palpable grief hung in the air on a bitterly cold night in Newtown, Conn., on Friday as hundreds came out to mourn the dead – 20 children and six adults – of the mass shooting just hours before.

Several services were held around the area, including one at the town hall. At the St. Rose of Lima Church people packed the pews and spilled out the doors.

While hymns and prayers could be heard from inside, outside people cried, hugged, and even laughed at times. Some participated in a prayer circle, silently holding hands before beginning to sing songs including "Amazing Grace" and "Silent Night."

Many who attended told PEOPLE they were there to pay their respects to the victims and their families, and some had closer connections.

Tiana Dwyer, a high-school student in Newtown, spent several hours a week with a 5-year-old boy who reportedly died in the shooting, and Friday night held a candle for him.

"I came out to honor him and all the kids who died," she said. "He was a really nice kid. He was a little shy. It's really sad, I can't believe it happened. I'm so upset."

A priest handed out wafers outside as people left the service, and many stayed afterward to connect and to observe the nativity scene outside the church.

Earlier, the church's Monsignor Robert Weiss told PEOPLE he'd been counseling survivors and families for much of the day, and described the shock many are experiencing.

"I think nobody can understand who this is or why [the shooter] would do this," he said. "Why would you walk into a classroom of little children and do what he did? That's probably the biggest question right now."

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