Father Daniel Mahoney remembered as 'a firefighter's firefighter'

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CHARLESTOWN -- Everyone knew him as Danny. Or Danno. Or Father Dan. Or, simply, Dan.

Father Dan Mahoney, the longtime Boston Fire Department chaplain who died on June 19 at the age of 94, was given a hero's farewell during a funeral Mass celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Charlestown on June 27. Father Mahoney served as pastor at St. Francis de Sales Parish from 1978 until his retirement in 2022. That was also the year he retired as chief chaplain of the Boston Fire Department, a position he held since 1991. He had been a chaplain in the department since 1964.

"If you can be 200 percent of anything, Father Dan was 100 percent a priest, and make no mistake about it, he was 100 percent a firefighter," said International Association of Firefighters President Dan Kelly in his remarks at the funeral Mass. "He was a Jake."

On June 27, a massive American flag hung from a fire truck's ladder over Bunker Hill Street. Speakers played bagpipe music beside a statue of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. The statue was donated to the parish in 2016 by the Boston Fire Fighters Local 718 as a tribute to Father Mahoney.

As mourners slowly filed into the church, the Boston Fire Department Honor Guard stood outside, with the solemn stillness of the marble statues adorning the altar. Beneath those statues was Father Mahoney's casket. His helmet, worn with age and slightly blackened with soot, lay atop it. The church was soon filled to capacity with mourners, including Father Mahoney's family and dozens of firefighters from Boston and beyond.

Father Mahoney was born and raised in Haverhill and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956.

"What a man," Father John Unni, the current chief chaplain of the Boston Fire Department, said in his homily. "What a parish priest... I mean, you make a mark on people's lives being here that long. Seventy years a priest, that's longer than I've been on this earth."

Father Unni quoted Father Mahoney as saying, "I always wanted to be a priest, and I always wanted to be a firefighter."

"He's been a firefighter's firefighter through and through," said Kelly, who knew Father Mahoney his whole life. "Whether it was the good days, whether baptisms and weddings, he did it all with a smile and that one-of-a-kind voice that could cut through everything."

He was also there in what Kelly called "moments of pain, agony, sorrow, mourning."

One of those moments was the night of Oct. 1, 1964, when a fire at an abandoned toy factory on Trumbull Street in the South End killed five Boston firefighters. Hours later, Cardinal Richard Cushing appointed him as an assistant fire chaplain. Over the decades of his ministry, Father Mahoney had to tell 68 firefighter families that their loved ones had been killed in the line of duty.

"We've heard these stories," Father Unni said, "but when you really think about it, what does it take to be present with people in these ways?"

Father Unni said that being a priest is not about "saying the magic words" but about being a presence in people's lives.

"Father Mahoney brought that presence to all his interactions," he said.

Father Mahoney was present at every major fire in Boston since 1964. He witnessed the Hotel Vendome fire on June 17, 1972, in which nine firefighters were killed. It remains the deadliest day for firefighters in Boston's history. Twenty-three children lost their fathers that day, and Father Mahoney had to tell them what had happened.

"It was then that Father Dan rose," Kelly said, "and I bore witness to Father Dan's strength, and how he truly brought Christ with him into places and people's souls."

During his remarks, Kelly recounted a story that Father Mahoney told him about the 1995 helicopter crash along the Charles River, which killed four people. When Father Mahoney received word of the accident, he rushed to the scene. The helicopter was loaded with fuel and could have exploded at any moment. When the hose engine arrived, it was a godsend -- even more so when Father Mahoney saw his own goddaughter inside.

"Her dad was one of those 68 firefighters whose family Danno had to call, ring the doorbell, and deliver awful, awful news," Kelly said.

In 2014, Kelly's 4-year-old son found out that he had stage-four cancer. Father Mahoney sent card after card to the boy, telling him to "keep his chin up." Later, a parishioner told Kelly that Father Mahoney "never prayed harder for anybody else" than for his son.

"My son is a healthy 14-year-old now," Kelly said.

Father Unni remembered Father Mahoney as a "fixture" in the lives of firefighters and their families, "a passionate human being who played out his role," and an "old-school priest" who was tough but gentle.

"That true love that he had for you, for God, for the church, for Charlestown, for so many... is tried and true in very authentic ways," Father Unni said. "He was so dedicated to bringing Jesus to us, and it came up in beautiful, smooth, and easy ways, and in other times, a little more unvarnished and a little rough."

Father Unni has known Father Mahoney since he was a young boy. During the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973, when Father Unni was in middle school, Father Mahoney was on his way there, but not before driving past Father Unni and shouting, "Get in boys! We're going to a fire!"

When the young Father Unni got home, he smelled like smoke, and his father was furious.

At the Vigil Mass for Father Mahoney on June 26, Father Unni heard a story from the filming of "The Town." The film crew was in Charlestown and making much more noise than Father Mahoney liked. He stepped outside and complained -- only to find himself face-to-face with the film's star, Ben Affleck. Affleck later came to apologize to Father Mahoney and asked what he could do to make up for the disturbance.

"Twenty thousand should do it," Father Mahoney replied.

Affleck later joked that his next movie would be called "Father Shakedown."

Father Unni described Father Mahoney as a man with a great zest for life. In his final days, "he wasn't willing to give up the ship."

The Boston Fire Department's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Ira A. Korff, and its Protestant chaplain, Rev. Carl B. Thompson of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Abington, were also there to pay their respects. Father Mahoney was known for his efforts to reach out to other faiths. In 1982, as the Tifereth Israel Temple in Everett burned, Father Mahoney and several others famously rushed into the burning building to save the sacred Torah scrolls.

"Father was not only a great leader for the parish of St. Francis de Sales," said parishioner Pauline O'Brien, "but also Charlestown. He was a person that the town leaned on and looked to for guidance."

She cited his leadership in the aftermath of the school busing crisis and those struggling with drug addiction and finding housing.

Kathleen Mahoney, whose father was Father Mahoney's first cousin, remembered him being at the family table in North Hampton, New Hampshire, for every holiday. He seldom stayed for long, however, because he always wanted to go back to Boston to be with the firefighters, she said.

He would show up to family gatherings in a red SUV, lights flashing and sirens blaring, with his dog Breslin.

"Danny was a larger-than-life figure to us," Kathleen said, "a colorful and dramatic storyteller, and we knew when the show was about to begin... He would hold court at the table with his booming voice and chuckle, and would shock and delight us with tales of the Boston Irish underworld and the scary fire scenes he bravely waded into."

He told tales of "dangerous characters with odd names like Whitey Bulger" without fear.

"We children would learn on the table with jaws open," Kathleen remembered, "envisioning the scenes of Charlestown bank robberies and the wheelmen who would be in his pews the next morning after Danny had visited them in jail the night before. Whether they were sinners or saints, they were all God's children to Danny."

Along with comforting firefighters, he would comfort his family during every personal tragedy they faced. She heard one firefighter say, "When everyone else's hands were shaking, Father Dan's were the steady hands that helped."

"His faith was so clear and present," she said. "He was truly a foot soldier of Jesus. He made you feel the love and certainty of God and Jesus in times of joy and times of tragedy."

Kelly said that Father Mahoney taught him the difference between acting heroic and living heroically.

"To live heroically is a far greater challenge," she said, "and Father Dan acted heroically. He literally saved lives through his actions. But through living heroically, he saved souls, which is far more important than lives."

To the sound of "How Great Thou Art" and "Danny Boy," eight firefighters pushed Father Mahoney's casket out of the church, followed by his family. Outside, all of the firefighters stood in a straight line along Bunker Hill Street next to the hearse. A bagpiper played as the casket was loaded into the back. The hearse door slowly shut. The firefighters all saluted as the hearse slowly rolled by in a procession led by a fire engine draped in black. Those attending Father Mahoney's burial at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden got in their cars and followed. The rest of the assembly slowly departed.