The Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney rushed out of the rectory at St. Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown as soon as he heard “Mayday Engine 33” crackle over the Boston Fire Department radio he keeps near him.
Within minutes, he arrived at the wind-whipped inferno that had quickly engulfed a brick apartment building in the Back Bay. Then, the solemn duties that he has carried out as Fire Department chaplain for nearly a half-century began.
As the organized chaos of urban firefighting swirled around him Wednesday afternoon, Mahoney performed last rites on 33-year-old firefighter Michael R. Kennedy as he was lifted into an ambulance at the corner of Beacon and Exeter streets.
Kennedy and Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr., who also died in the blaze, are the latest in a long line of firefighters who have fallen in Mahoney’s career. The number now is 51, from fires, from illness, and from accidents.
“Every time there’s a line-of-duty death, it triggers the memories and the sorrow,” Mahoney said wistfully Friday. “You get used to it, but it gets harder each time.”
The journey has been a sometimes excruciating one for Mahoney, who has provided comfort after such tragic fires as the Hotel Vendome blaze in 1972, which killed nine firefighters in the Back Bay, a 1994 fire in a Charlestown warehouse that killed one, and a 2007 fire in a West Roxbury restaurant that killed two.
Along the way, delivering the news of death has become sadly familiar for this first-
generation Irish-American. Tell the families quickly and directly, he said. Allow them to process the shock. Never leave them alone.
‘We take care of them in life and we take care of them in death.’The Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney, Boston Fire Department chaplain
On Wednesday, Mahoney became an integral part of that task. After performing last rites for Kennedy and offering general absolution at the site for Walsh, whose body had not yet been pulled from the rubble, Mahoney traveled to Massachusetts General Hospital to lead prayers for Kennedy, whose body had been formally identified there.
The priest then joined a delegation of fire officials who drove to West Roxbury, where Walsh lived, and to Hyde Park, which Kennedy called home, to notify families before they learned of the deaths through news, social media, or friends.
Kennedy’s mother, Kathy Crosby, stood outside the house when they arrived, Mahoney recalled, and her son’s sudden death was confirmed for her.
“Firefighters have told their families: If you see a chief and a chaplain show up in a red car, it’s not good,” Mahoney said.
The priest accompanied Crosby back to Mass. General, where he led another prayer service for Kennedy, an Iraq war veteran who perished in what seemed at first to be a normal, manageable fire.
“We take care of them in life, and we take care of them in death,” Mahoney said.
Firefighters seem to recognize the empathy that Mahoney has for them.
“If you’re thinking of a person that’s going to be a chaplain for firefighters, he’s the perfect guy,” said Bob Petitti, interim vice president of the Boston firefighters’ union. “He understands firefighters so much in his heart and soul.”
Mahoney said Friday with a broad smile that he does not publicize his age because he wants to keep his job, but the math speaks for itself: He has been a priest for 58 years, including pastor at St. Francis de Sales for the last 36.
He spoke Friday at a memorial ceremony for Kennedy and Walsh at City Hall Plaza, where he straightened his trim, bent frame to snap a right hand to his forehead as a Boston Fire Department flag rose slowly to half-staff. He wore the department’s full dress uniform, which all but covered the patch of white on his clerical collar.
“Our brother departed firefighters have made the supreme sacrifice,” Mahoney told the hushed crowd in a firm, deep voice laden with Boston’s distinct inflections. Walsh’s and Kennedy’s actions on Wednesday, he said, “spoke far more eloquently for themselves than any of us ever could.”
In his way, Mahoney clearly has spoken to his flock. After the memorial, firefighter after firefighter shook his hand or patted him on the shoulder. And Mahoney returned each greeting with equal warmth.
“I call this a ministry; it’s more than just a job,” he said later. “It’s an easy job to love because of the people.”
It’s also a job that Mahoney embraces with a younger man’s energy. As he walked to the Fire Department-owned, bright-red 1996 Chevy Suburban that he drives, Mahoney complained about “the old asthma and arthritis kicking up.”
But once ensconced behind the wheel, where the cab contains a squawking Fire Department radio, as well as a crucifix, Mahoney’s mood lightened.
Mike Doherty, the deputy fire chief at Division 2 in Jamaica Plain, stopped at the window to say hello. After he left, the priest remarked in passing that Doherty used to be one of his altar boys.
The pattern was repeated several times. As firetrucks left City Hall, arms were extended to wave to a chaplain who had been torn as a young man between joining the priesthood and becoming a firefighter.
Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, who appointed him chaplain, told him there was not much difference between the careers.
“There’s one thing that firefighters and chaplains have in common,” Mahoney recalled the late cardinal telling him. “It’s fire prevention, both here and in the hereafter.”
On Wednesday, after a long day and evening of tending to the dead and the grieving, Mahoney returned to St. Francis de Sales, where he began one more ritual.
“I go home and have a cup of coffee,” he said. “I go to the chapel. I just sit there, and I pray my own prayers: ‘God, take care of the families. God, take care of whoever just died.’ ”
The habit has its rewards.
“I get some peace,” Mahoney said, “but the sad part is I’ve done it too many times.”