WATERTOWN — The body of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. was returned Wednesday to the brick church of his childhood, an intimate Gothic sanctuary where he had been baptized almost 43 years ago and where, on this day, he would be eulogized as a 6-foot-4 “gentle giant” whose life calling was to lead the charge into burning buildings.
“Ed Walsh was carried in his mother’s arms into this church of St. Patrick for the first time as a 1-month-old baby,” the Rev. Robert Casey, a Boston Fire Department chaplain, told the congregation. “This morning, Lieutenant Ed Walsh was carried into this church in the arms of his fellow firefighters.”
Walsh’s mother, herself a firefighter’s wife, was there in the front pew, near her son’s casket. She comforted his widow, Kristen, and two of their children. Walsh’s nephew, dressed in a red firefighter costume, nuzzled into his grandmother. In his homily, the Rev. John J. Unni underscored the cost of last week’s fatal fire in the Back Bay, which killed Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy.
Unni knew Walsh and Kennedy because the priest’s rectory at St. Cecilia parish is near their firehouse on Boylston Street. When he hears the wail of sirens, Unni said, he raises his hand in prayer, blessing the firefighters as they rush to a call.
As he spoke Wednesday, Unni walked to the pew where Kristen Walsh sat with her children.
The priest leaned down as he spoke to Walsh’s 5-year-old daughter, Morgan, who sat on her mother’s lap.
“What did you say to Mommy about Daddy?” Unni asked. “ ‘He’s in heaven.’ ”
Unni told Morgan that he, too, was just a child when his own father died. His mother also told him his Dad was in heaven. It helped then, Unni said, and it still does.
“Your Daddy is watching down on you and your Mommy, and your brothers,” Unni said before looking up at the congregation. “I don’t think that’s just a thing for little kids. I think it challenges all of us to ask ourselves, ‘What do we believe?’ ”
Walsh believed in firefighting. Outside the church, more than 10,000 of his fellow firefighters in a sea of dress blue uniforms inundated the streets in an overwhelming show of grief.
The ritual was punctuated with crisp salutes by white-gloved hands, a slow procession with the fallen lieutenant’s chipped helmet from Engine 33, and the lonely toll of the firefighter’s bell.
The formation of firefighters stretched 15 deep in places along Watertown’s Main Street and ran more than a half-
dozen blocks, past two ladder trucks hoisting an enormous American flag.
More than 300 bagpipers and drummers played anthems of mourning. Neighbors in surrounding buildings came onto their roofs to watch the spectacle as Engine 33 arrived shrouded in black and purple bunting and festooned with flowers.
The casket rode atop the engine.
The same rite — the sea of firefighters saluting, the bagpipers skirling, the helmet procession, and a tolling bell — will be performed for Kennedy’s funeral at 11 a.m. Thursday at Holy Name Church in West Roxbury.
Last week, Kennedy and Walsh led the charge into a fire at 298 Beacon St. in the Back Bay and were trapped in the basement after an explosion.
At Walsh’s funeral, the roughly 650 mourners who were crammed inside the church included Governor Deval Patrick and scores of other state and city officials.
Former mayor Thomas M. Menino sat in a pew behind a firefighter with a white bandage wound around his head, covering his ears.
In a tribute, Mayor Martin J. Walsh described the lieutenant as a brave and experienced firefighter, saying he was a “rock supporting all of our lives whether we knew it or not.”
“Every day he went to work, he put himself on the line for us. That’s why so many people are here,” Walsh said.
“All of Boston is stopping to pay its respects to Ed Walsh today. We need to thank him and his family for his lifetime of service to our community.”
The most intimate portrait of Walsh came from his sister, Kathy Malone, the mother of the boy in the front pew in the firefighter’s costume.
She described Walsh as her “little brother,” a man with stunning blue eyes, a hearty handshake, and a towering presence whose height had scared her son when he was a toddler.
“Robert wouldn’t go near Uncle Eddie; he had to be sitting down,” Malone said.
“But Eddie was only intimidating in size. He had a terrific smile and a wonderful sense of humor.”
Walsh had a calling to help others as a firefighter, following a path blazed by his father. He balanced the demands of the firehouse with being a husband, father, coach, and volunteer for a foundation and the Franciscan Hospital for Children.
“Ed fit 48 hours into a 24-hour day,” Malone said.
“If the timekeeper of life kept track, he may have noticed that this man, in fact, has lived a full life. He lived more in 43 years than many of us will do in 80.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley delivered the closing prayer.
“This is a man who made a gift of himself to his God, his family, his community,” said O’Malley, spiritual leader of Boston’s Catholics.
“His life was a great success, and we are grateful for it.”