The Rev. Tom Mulcrone, who has been the Chicago Fire Department chaplain for almost 30 years — through five mayors and what he estimates to be 10 fire commissioners — says he’s planning to retire from that job on June 30.
Mulcrone, 65, said he’s the third official chaplain in the history of the Fire Department. An archdiocesan priest, he was appointed to the job by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1987.
He ministers to firefighters and their families during happy and sad times, from line-of-duty deaths to special occasions. He has presided over weddings and baptisms and attended countless wakes. “In any given year I do 80 or 90 funerals,” he said. “I probably do 30 to 40 weddings a year and 30 to 40 baptisms.”
He has seen many improvements in firefighting equipment and technology, as well as modern challenges.
“The newest challenge is the ever-increasing risk of terrorism, domestic terrorism, and the things 30 years ago firefighters never thought about — biological agents, neurological agents,” he said. “Hazardous materials has become the new forefront of firefighting.”
Mulcrone plans to continue in his role as chaplain at St. Mary of Providence, 4200 N. Austin, a facility serving people with developmental disabilities.
He grew up one of eight kids in Resurrection Parish at Jackson and Leamington, attending Quigley South and Loyola University before entering St. Mary of the Lake seminary.
His grandfather and father were Chicago police officers, and his brother Michael served with the Palatine Police Department. Another brother, Jim, is retired from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. His brother Larry, who worked at high-level posts with the Illinois State Police, died in 2015 at 64 from mesothelioma, an illness his doctor attributed to a summer construction job that exposed him to asbestos when he was 20, Mulcrone said at the time.
His brother’s death “definitely factored into my decision,” he said Monday. Ultimately, he wrote on Facebook, he decided to retire while he had his health and to make room for a new chaplain with a fresh perspective and energy.
Mulcrone said he’ll miss the work. “It’s the nature of firefighters and paramedics. They are sui generis. They are one-of-a-kind and it’s a tremendous family to belong to,” he said. “They are much like police officers . . . they’re ready to give their life away for a total stranger.”
Still, he said, “It’ll be so nice going to bed at night knowing nobody’s going to wake me up” for emergencies.
Bill Kugelman said the chaplain helped him survive the 1986 death of his son, John, a state trooper who was run down by a motorist fleeing from police. “He was there for me,” said Kugelman, a retired battalion chief and former president of the Chicago Firefighters Union.
“His strength is getting along with people, being able to communicate with people that come back from a real bad situation, [seeing] kids [who] are bloody and all of this stuff, deaths,” Kugelman said. “He can talk to you one-on-one.”
“He’s an absolute workaholic priest. He’s at wakes, he’s at weddings, he’s at funerals,” Kugelman said. “All you gotta do is call him.”
“There have been moments of incredible joy and satisfaction that have made these years a delight,” Mulcrone wrote on Facebook. “But there have also been those times of tragedy and great sadness, especially when one of our own had fallen. Yet through it all I knew I was loved and supported by so many who stood by my side, always encouraging me.”