Though Fr. Dan Mahoney, pastor at St. Francis de Sales Parish, Charlestown has devoted his life to celebrating Mass within the walls of the Church, perhaps his most heroic act took place inside a synagogue. When a Boston-area temple caught fire in 1982, Fr. Mahoney rushed inside and saved the sacred scrolls for the Jewish community. “He could’ve just stood on the sidelines, and no one would’ve criticized him for it,” says Joseph Finn, former Commissioner of the Boston Fire Department (BFD).
Fr. Mahoney’s bravery that day marks just one of many instances in which he has been an invaluable presence for the BFD. For more than 50 years now, Fr. Mahoney has served as the BFD’s Chief of Chaplains, a revered position that has been part of the BFD’s fabric for more than 100 years. According to the BFD firefighters, Fr. Mahoney and Assistant Chaplain Fr. John Unni (pastor at St. Cecilia Parish, Boston) are both an indispensable part of the firehouse culture.
Many firefighters will admit that they feel an implicit pressure to avoid speaking aloud about the trauma that comes with working a job in which any day could be your last and losing a dear friend in a fire. For that reason, Fr. Mahoney and Fr. Unni—who understand the hardships that firefighters face in ways that few others can—provide an essential support system for the BFD. In the wake of tragedy, they’re often times the first people that our first responders seek out.
“By us sitting down with Fr. Unni or him coming into the firehouse and building that relationship, we can perform our jobs better, knowing he’s there,” says firefighter Patrick Callahan. “Fr. Unni being the chaplain and the relationship he has with the Department does build a stronger community; it’s one hand washing the other.”
“I see my role as trying to be present,” states Fr. Unni. “You won’t always know all the words to say or have all the answers. In fact, there often are no answers. You want to be present and ready to listen when they’re ready to bring things to speech.”
Indeed, Fr. Mahoney and Fr. Unni have been a steady presence for BFD firefighters both in moments of joy such as weddings and baptisms and, even more crucially, in moments of grief and despair. “When (fellow firefighter) Stevie Minehan was killed in the Charlestown Fire (of 1994), the first person I ran to was Fr. Mahoney,” recalls Deputy Chief Michael Doherty. “That tragic day on Beacon Street (in 2014), when we lost two firefighters (Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy), Fr. Unni was an integral part of keeping this house together,” adds Finn.
In Fr. Unni’s mind, the responsibilities that come with the chaplaincy draw many parallels with the way in which Christ sought to lift up others. “Think about Jesus: that’s all He did was break bread with people and meet them where they were at,” says Fr. Unni. “There’s the joke ‘these hands are made for chalices, not calluses.’ But for me, it’s both–it’s the combo plate.”