FALL RIVER — On one of the worst days of their lives, city residents met Tom Harrington.
He arrived to bring hope, help and consolation.
That service will be recognized this week when firefighters attend his funeral, providing escorts and honor guards to mark his years as the department chaplain.
“We are in the process of arranging his funeral service now,” said Fire Chief John Lynch. “He is considered an active department member.
“We want to honor him.”
Msgr. Thomas J. Harrington, a New Bedford native and retired pastor of the city's Holy Name of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, died Friday following a long battle with lung disease. He had been the chaplain for the Fall River Fire Department since 2004, when he stepped in as a temporary replacement for Father Paul McCarrick.
“Tom was an amazing person,” Lynch said. “Everyone in the department loved him. To me, he was a friend.
“When he went to bed at night, he put his turn-out gear by his bed and turned his monitor on. When a fire alarm sounded, he got up and went.
“He was at every fire, almost immediately.”
He stopped being surprised, Lynch said, when he was at a fire and turned a corner to see Harrington pitching in, helping firefighters move hoses.
At fire scenes, Harrington had a knack for finding the people who were watching their home burn. He worked closely with the special services director Richard Aguiar to get help to those who needed it.
For many, even the non-religious, Harrington provided a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear when everything was bad.
One of the city’s worst days was on June 14, 2006, when four people died while preparing for the St. John’s Holy Ghost Association Feast.
“There were three or four chaplains there that day,” said Rev. James Tilbe, the chaplain for the Raynham Fire Department and chief of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains.
“People were just drawn to Tom. He was the guy everyone wanted to be with, the one they wanted to talk to.
“It was a Portuguese crowd and Tom was pretty Irish, but he was the one they wanted to pray with. He just connected to people.”
The service did not end at the fire scene, Lynch said.
“A lot of our guys, if they had issues, they went to him first,” Lynch said. “He counseled those who needed it and got guys into programs.
“He was more than just a fire chaplain. You could really talk to him. He was one of us.”
Firefighter Richard Levesque remembers when Harrington began work with the department 13 years ago.
“Father Mac had just retired,” Levesque said. Levesque was the aide to Fire Chief Edward J. Dawson at the time.
“I was told someone named Tom Harrington wanted to meet with me. I went out and it was Monsignor Harrington. He said that if we need help until we found a fire chaplain, he was offering his services.
“That was 2004.”
Shortly after that Harrington learned he had a diseased lung. He was given a short time to live. He began going to the gym and learned to play the saxophone to increase his lung capacity. When offered the opportunity for a lung transplant, he declined, Lynch said. He told his doctors that a healthy lung should be given to someone younger.
Through his time as a priest, Harrington carried increasing responsibilities with the diocese, at one point serving as vicar for finance and administration. He received honors from two popes, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.
He also served as fire chaplain during assignments in Hyannis, Taunton and New Bedford and helped form the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains.
That was part of a lifelong commitment to the fire service, firefighters say.
Lynch said Harrington understood fire science and that he stayed up to date on firefighting techniques.
“When he was a boy, he wanted to be either a firefighter or a priest,” Lynch said. “He chose being a priest.
“I think he made the right choice, but it kind of broke his heart. He loved firefighting.”
That affection will be returned.
An honor guard will meet the hearse as it transports the monsignor from the Saunders-Dwyer Funeral Home in New Bedford to St. Mary’s Cathedral, 327 Second St.
The honor guard will stand vigil during the wake in the cathedral from 2 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday. Firefighters will also accompany his casket during the funeral at 11 a.m. Friday in St. Mary’s. Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha will lead the Funeral Mass.
A Fall River firetruck will return the casket to New Bedford, Harrington’s home town, for burial.
“He was one of our own,” Lynch said. “We want to honor him that way.”