The president first met privately with families of the victims and with the emergency personnel who responded to the shooting. Police and firefighters got hugs and standing ovations when they entered for the public vigil, as did Obama.
"We needed this," said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church. "We need to be together here in this room. ... We needed to be together to show that we are together and united."
As Obama read some of the names of victims early in his remarks, sobs resonated throughout the hall. He closed by slowly reading the first names of each of the 20 children.
"God has called them all home," he said. "For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory."
The first funerals were planned Monday for Jack Pinto, a 6-year-old New York Giants fan who might be buried in wide receiver Victor Cruz's jersey, and Noah Pozner, a boy of the same age who liked to figure out how things worked mechanically.
"He was just a really lively, smart kid," said Noah's uncle Alexis Haller, of Woodinville, Wash. "He would have become a great man, I think. He would have grown up to be a great dad."
With more funerals planned this week, the road ahead for Newtown — which had already started purging itself of Christmas decorations in a joyful season turned mournful — was clouded.
"I feel like we have to get back to normal, but I don't know if there is normal anymore," said Kim Camputo, mother of two children, ages 5 and 10, who attend a different school. "I'll definitely be dropping them off and picking them up myself for a while."