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Two Boston tower trucks honored the Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney, fire chaplain, who marked 50 years as a priest yesterday.
Two Boston tower trucks honored the Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney, fire chaplain, who marked 50 years as a priest yesterday. (Mark Wilson/ Globe Staff)

Afire with faith

It is not the dramatic exploits of the Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney that impress visitors to his Charlestown parish these days. It has been more than 30 years since he dashed into the blazing Congregation Tifereth Israel in Everett to save the Jewish community's Torah scrolls, and Mahoney now seems much more an elderly uncle than a daredevil.

Nor is his reputation based on the way he defused the nasty spat between Townies and Jews over the naming of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Those negotiations were done quietly, and Mahoney's role was not widely known.

It is the way this man -- who as a boy agonized over whether to become a priest or a firefighter and found a way to do both -- looks and speaks that marks him as someone special, whether he is consecrating the Eucharist, speaking out against bigotry, or recalling the 48 times he has had to tell a firefighter's family of a death in the line of duty.

He remembers the circumstances of each death, and each family's struggle to cope. His voice is strong and soft and full of feeling as he pronounces the wafer and wine the body and blood of Christ. Nothing in the service suggests Mahoney has said Mass 10,000 times before. But he has.

Yesterday, Mahoney celebrated 50 years in the priesthood. Friends, firefighters, rabbis, and social activists climbed Bunker Hill to St. Francis de Sales Parish, where Mahoney's father first worshiped in 1912 as a newly arrived immigrant from Ireland, and where the son has been a priest since 1968.

Additional tributes are planned on May 10, when Mahoney is to receive an award from the Anti-Defamation League for lifelong efforts against anti-Semitism.

But the honors are made bittersweet by the possibility that Mahoney -- vigorous, quick-witted, but no spring chicken -- may shortly be required to take an unwanted retirement from the parish, in compliance with archdiocesan policy that requires priests to submit their resignations when they turn 75. He declines to give his age lest he antagonize the powers that be, but friends and supporters say he is worried and unhappy at the prospect of leaving the parish.

Anything else, Mahoney will discuss -- like the way he looks and sounds when the body and the blood are made real through his effort.

''I remember Cardinal Cushing saying to us as young priests: Be prayerful and be present," Mahoney said over coffee in the St. Francis rectory recently, recalling the revered prince of the church who ordained him, assigned him to Charlestown, and initiated the deep reconciliation between Catholics and Jews that has taken place in Boston over the past half-century. ''I try to do that. Sometimes I fall flat on my face. Maybe that's the key."

A portrait of Cushing occupies the place of pride in the rectory salon. Zachary, the latest in a long line of Mahoney Labradors, is curled up on the dark old Persian carpet. ''Dano" -- the priest often refers to himself by the nickname his family gave him -- is ready to tell his story.

It is a tale with deep roots in the Irish immigrant experience, Boston, the church, and the fire brigades of the metropolitan area. It begins even before Mahoney senior made landfall in Eastie.

''When this church was built in 1858, the governor, a Protestant, had to call out the National Guard, because what was being built in the day was being torn down in the night," Mahoney said. ''It was difficult times for new people coming to America. Like today."

Mahoney's father, Daniel, arrived on the docks of East Boston and worked as a pipefitter and boilermaker until he saved enough to start a neighborhood hardware store and move his family to Haverhill. There his eldest son and namesake played varsity football at St. James High School, then entered St. John's Seminary in Brighton.

During Mahoney's first assignment as a priest, at St. Mary of the Assumption in Revere, he occasionally drove Cushing to appointments, and his persona mirrors the cardinal's on several levels -- his banter with politicians and journalists, his influence far beyond spiritual issues, and his deep commitment to reconciliation of Catholics and Jews.

The young priest's first act of firefighter-like heroism came in 1959, when a house near the church was engulfed by flames from a natural gas line explosion. Nine-year-old Michael Mucci escaped the blazing home with his mother. Now Major Michael Mucci of the Massachusetts State Police recalls vividly how ''Father Mahoney broke through the back door, found my father wandering around dazed, and walked him out. . . . He saved my father's life."

In 1964, Mahoney became a fire department chaplain. He has been chief chaplain in Boston since 1991, and also serves the departments in Chelsea, Cambridge, and Revere.

Mahoney's best-known rescue was not of a person, but of the five Torah scrolls of Temple Tifereth Israel in Everett, which was destroyed by fire in 1982.

''The Torahs had to be saved," recalls Samuel Spivack, a member of the congregation who now lives in Salem, N.H. ''We had a young rabbi who wanted to go in and a few of us wanted to go in with him, but the fire department wouldn't hear of it."

Mahoney and others at the scene braved thick smoke to enter the sanctuary, and a backdraft knocked them to the ground as they reached the ark where the Torahs were kept. They got up, broke through windows near the ark, and threw the Torahs from the inferno to the waiting congregants.

''Some will say we were crazy, but . . . I grew up with Jewish kids, I knew something of their worship," Mahoney said recently. ''In the Jewish faith, the Torahs are at the very center of worship."

The public spotlight that the rescue put on Mahoney was fleeting, but it brought him into contact with Leonard P. Zakim, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and a legendary builder of bridges among Greater Boston's diverse religious and ethnic communities. For the next 19 years, he was a member of the ADL leader's storied network, helping popularize antidiscrimination programs such as No Room for Hate and A World of Difference.

And after Zakim died in 1999, Mahoney played a major role in resolving a dispute between Charlestown residents who wanted Boston's newest architectural masterpiece named the Bunker Hill Bridge and political and Jewish community leaders who wanted the span named after Zakim.

Mahoney held a Catholic-Jewish prayer service and a Catholic-Jewish seder at St. Francis, and worked behind the scenes at the State House. He and Rabbi Samuel Chiel, a leader of the Jewish community who also was Zakim's rabbi, convened a committee of civic and religious leaders from Charlestown and the Jewish community to work on the issue.

''The other clergy and laypeople looked to him as a leader and he played a key role," said Chiel, who plans to be on Bunker Hill with hundreds of other Mahoney admirers today. ''He is what we call in Yiddish a 'hamish' person -- he is very comfortable with people and people are comfortable with him."

So effective was the effort to counter the anti-Semitism that arose during the dispute that, on the day the bridge was dedicated, one of the Townies who had been most bitter in opposing the Zakim memorial apologized to the late ADL leader's widow.

Mahoney almost missed the dedication, where access was tightly controlled due to the hosts of political leaders present and the hypersensitive post-9/11 security environment. The license number of the priest's fire department vehicle was not on the list being checked by the state trooper at the entrance to the bridge.

The trooper called his supervisor, Mike Mucci. ''Dan Mahoney?" said the son of the man Mahoney had saved a half-century earlier. ''He can park anywhere he wants."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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