From Paris to Boston, the crucial role of fire chaplains

Chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, Jean-Marc Fournier, is credited with saving several items of great significance – such as the crown of thorns – from the Cathedral of Notre Dame as it burned.

Previously a military chaplain in Afghanistan, Fournier also cared for survivors from the 2015 terrorist rampage at the Bataclan attack in Paris that killed more than 100 people.

Fournier is not alone in placing himself at great risk in service of others. Mychal Judge, the first casuality of 9/11, was a Catholic chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.

The helmet worn by chaplain Mychal Judge during a memorial service. AP Photo/Tina Fineberg
Although rarely seen by those on the outside, fire departments across the country include chaplains. They provide care to firefighters, family members and members of the public in a range of crucial ways.

Regardless of their own faith background, they typically work with people of all faiths and beliefs, outside of traditional congregations or parishes.

The chaplaincy context

Historically chaplains were required in the military, federal prisons and the Veterans Administration.

But as congregations shrink and growing numbers of Americans move away from organized religion, it is chaplains that are often doing the work of spiritual care.

Chaplains these days are mostly present in health care settings such as hospices, hospitals and some nursing facilities where people are more likely to need end-of-life spiritual care.

They are also to be seen in airports, seaports, car racetracks and in areas where disasters have struck. There are chaplains even for pets and their owners.

Some chaplains have graduate degrees and extensive clinical training while others may not.

Fire chaplains in Massachusetts

As scholars of contemporary religion and its practice, we interviewed 65 chaplains in a range of sectors over the past three years and spent time with fire chaplains who work across the greater Boston area.

The Boston Fire Department appointed its first chaplains in the early 1900s and since then chaplains have served continually in the Mass Corps of Fire Chaplains. Over the course of the 20th century, several of them have put themselves at great risk to serve firefighters and others in need.

During the 1942 fire in Boston’s popular Coconut Grove nightclub in which more than 450 were killed and 160 injured, chaplains were a steady presence and served in whatever way was most helpful.