Beloved monsignor, chaplain, counselor and friend dies at age 78

Msgr. Thomas J. Harrington was well-known fire chaplain in several diocesan cities and towns

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FALL RIVER, Mass. — Msgr. Thomas J. Harrington, 78, died at Charlton Memorial Hospital on June 30 following a long battle with lung disease. He would have turned 79 on July 28.

Msgr. Harrington led a very fruitful and busy life as a diocesan priest, holding many diocesan titles, and was chaplain to the Fire Departments in Hyannis, Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River.

He was born in New Bedford on July 28, 1938 to the late Edward J. and Esther (Yates) Harrington.

He grew up in St. Lawrence Parish in the Whaling City, graduating from Holy Family High School. He received a bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Holy Cross College in Worcester and prepared for the priesthood at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. 

Msgr. Harrington was ordained on May 30, 1964 by Bishop James L. Connolly, after which time he returned to the Catholic University for graduate studies in 1967-69, receiving a License in Canon Law. 

He served as parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis and Immaculate Conception Parish in Fall River prior to being named vice-chancellor and secretary to Bishop Connolly. In 1972, Bishop Daniel A. Cronin appointed him as chancellor of the diocese while he also served as resident chaplain at the former Rose Hawthorne Home in Fall River. 

In 1974, Pope Paul VI designated him a papal chamberlain with the rank of monsignor. 

Msgr. Harrington was appointed rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral in 1978. He was appointed vicar for finance and administration in 1983 while continuing as rector of the cathedral. 

In 1986, Msgr. Harrington returned to the Catholic University in Washington for a year of sabbatical studies and returned to the diocese to become pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Taunton for eight years. He was appointed pastor of Holy Name Parish in New Bedford in 1995 and in that capacity oversaw the merger of Holy Name Parish with Sacred Heart Parish, forming the new parish family of the Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

Pope John Paul II named him a Prelate of Honor of His Holiness in 1999. Through the years, Msgr. Harrington held a number of other diocesan responsibilities. He was secretary for Spiritual Development and Apostolates, director of the annual Catholic Charities Appeal and dean of the Taunton Deanery. For reasons of health, he retired in 2004 and in retirement had promoted awareness of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., who was the principal celebrant at Msgr. Harrington’s funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral on July 7, told The Anchor, “There are many people who have special gifts to connect with other people and to bring God’s presence to them. Msgr. Harrington was certainly one of those people. He had a joyful, peaceful presence. We could tell that he enjoyed his priesthood, enjoyed being with people and serving them. He will be sorely missed among us. But the Lord knew his time here on this earth had come to an end and called him to his eternal home. We will miss him here among us, but we know that he is praying for us from Heaven.”

Msgr. Harrington had served as chaplain to the fire departments in Hyannis, Taunton, New Bedford and in retirement continued to minister as fire chaplain to the members of the Fall River Fire Department. He is a founding member of the Corps of Fire Chaplains in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was honored by his peers in 2008 with the Mychal Judge Award. Father Judge was chaplain of the New York City Fire Department and was killed aiding victims of the attacks at the World Trade Center’s twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Father Judge was the first known victim.

Bishop Emeritus George W. Coleman, who was also at the funeral Mass, along with Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin, told The Anchor, “Both Msgr. Harrington and I resided at St. Mary’s Cathedral rectory for a few years. Whenever a signal arrived in his room indicating a fire in Fall River, he would be on his way, regardless of the hour, to offer assistance to the firemen and, frequently, to offer help to those individuals or families who had been injured or deprived of their residence. He was a priest who lived the virtue of charity. May he rest in peace.” 

Current chief of the Fall River Fire Department John Lynch told The Anchor, “Msgr. Tom was an inspiration to everyone in the Fire Department. He was beloved, and as a chaplain, he was like no other.

“He showed up to every fire and it was a comfort to see him there. As you know at a fire things can go wrong very quickly and if manpower was needed, he was there to help pick up and move hoses. He was one of us. He was an active member of this department.

“He always had time for everyone,” Chief Lynch continued. “He was a man of God first, and a darn good firefighter, second. And we don’t pass out accolades all that much, and that’s the greatest compliment you can give someone.

“He was well-respected, and I can’t count the emails and texts I’ve received from firefighters having a tough time with his loss.”

In an interview with The Anchor, retired Fall River Fire Department captain and assistant city fire marshal, Maurice Reney, told a story of the first time he encountered Msgr. Harrington: “I was going to St. Vincent’s Camp one summer when I was 11. My dad, who was a Fall River firefighter died the previous November. There was a long line at the mess hall, and I saw Father Harrington talking to each child in line. He would ask a few what their father did for a living, and I was so afraid he would ask me.

“He did, and I started crying. Msgr. Harrington remembered my dad and immediately he started to horse around with us in line until we were all laughing and I felt better.”

Reney said members of the FRFD were especially grateful for his presence on fire scenes. “I can remember him consoling people who had just lost everything,” said Reney. “And he privately counseled more than one firefighter, whether Spiritually or personally over the years. He always knew to say the right thing at the right time.”

A grateful friend of “Bill W,” Msgr. Harrington often facilitated days of recollection rooted in the “12 Steps.” 

St. Mary’s Cathedral was filled for Msgr. Harrington’s funeral Mass. Dozens of diocesan priests attended as did many deacons and seminarians. A very large contingent from the Fall River Fire Department was on hand to bid their chaplain farewell.

Retired Father Paul E. Canuel, a close friend of the monsignor’s and a fellow resident at Cardinal Medeiros Residence in Fall River delivered the homily.

“Home again,” he started, referring to what Msgr. Harrington chimed after returning from celebrating a Mass, coming back from “monkey bars,” (his rehab), a round of golf, or a Bishop Connolly High School sporting event.

“Now,” continued Father Canuel, “The Father is saying ‘Home again, welcome My son, welcome home.’

“There was no greater fan of Cougar sports (Bishop Connolly High School), the Red Sox, Patriots Bruins, Celtics and most recently the New England Revolution.

“It’s no longer painful for Msgr. Harrington to take a breath, and maybe now he’ll be able to play the saxophone like John Coltrane.

“Home again.”

Msgr. Harrington was an avid fan of local professional sports teams and an enthusiastic golfer. In retirement, he learned to play the saxophone, reflecting his love of music and as therapy for pulmonary illness. 

Msgr. Harrington published, “A Call To Serve,” a memoir of his experiences as a fire chaplain as well as meditations on the “12 Steps” Spirituality. He has published several canonical articles in The Jurist, The Catholic Lawyer and Studia Canonica

Msgr. Harrington spent many happy years in retirement at the Cardinal Medeiros Residence attached to Bishop Connolly High School. He assisted at local parishes and at the diocesan Tribunal roughly once a week. 

Two of his brother priests and fellow residents at Cardinal Medeiros Residence shared their thoughts with The Anchor. “Well, we’ve been friends for a long, long time,” said Father Thomas L. Rita. “In fact, I first met him when I was a young seminarian and he was an old seminarian. Being ordained within the year, and I still had seven-and-a-half years to keep waiting. I remember we met at the Port Authority in New York — we took the same bus to come back to New Bedford. He came from Washington, D.C., and I came from Louisville, Ky.

“Not too long after my ordination, I was asked by him and Bishop Cronin to get involved in the marriage work in the Tribunal and we’ve worked on that together right up until now, all these years. That goes back to 1974.

“He was at every meal here — morning, noon and night — and he was the clarion. He gave us all the news and he was always in good spirits.”

“In the end, the last meal he had here I was sitting next to him. There were only a couple of guys sitting at the table, and I could see he was struggling and needed to get up to his room to the oxygen. It was that night, during the night, that he called the rescue squad. But he never complained. He expected 13 years ago that he was only going to last a year or two. He had been going to regular physical therapy, which he called ‘monkey bars.’

“He took up the saxophone so he could expand the wind in his lungs as well. Every afternoon we heard that saxophone at 4:00, so if you were napping it woke you up! At Christmas, he’d be out in the front hall (of the residence) as people arrived, and he was tooting away and, my goodness, you couldn’t hear yourself talk! But he was always funny and cheerful, never down or never gloomy. He had a great interest in local and national politics as well. He just never gave up.

“His interest in the fire department goes back to when he was a child. His grandfather was a firefighter and he always loved it and hung around with the firefighters where he lived in New Bedford. His house was almost across the street from the fire department, which was near St. Lawrence’s Church.

“What he did for this diocese as chancellor, in those years when Bishop Cronin was still bishop, he did Catholic Charities work for a number of years — he never got lazy. His work in the tribunal is legend, it really is. He’d chat with you guys, then he’d do a case and I’d get it and I’d judge it.

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“We’re all going to miss him, there’s no question. He’s one of the finest priests in the history of my knowledge of the diocese, really. He was just an extraordinary guy.” 

Father Edward E. Correia said, “He was just so present. I mean, in the residence, you’d go through a day and there’s something he used to do all the time or something he would say — we miss him already. He never, ever, ever complained. With all of his medical problems, and all his medical situations — even on the day he was dying. I went to see him and he said: ‘Well, that’s the way it is.’ He never, ever complained. He always had a smile and it was unbelievable.

“He lived at the Cardinal Medeiros Residence for 13 years. He went over in 2004, so he was there 13 years. I know the staff there feels so bad about losing him.

“There was a seminarian who came to visit recently and I pointed (Msgr. Harrington) out to him and I said: ‘You’re meeting one of the greats of our diocese right here.’”

Chorbishop Joseph F. Kaddo, pastor of St. Anthony of Desert Parish, Fall River, another of the monsignor’s dear friends told The Anchor, “Msgr. Harrington would often replace me when I was out of town at St. Anthony’s. As a matter of fact, one of the last Masses he celebrated was there on June 25. One of the beautiful hymns we sing in Arabic he loved, and the choir knew he was going to be the main celebrant and they sang it at the end of the Liturgy. Then he came out and greeted all the people, and when he went back into the church the choir stayed and they played it for him again and he was so jovial! He was so happy! He enjoyed coming over to fill in for me.

“As a lot of my brother priests have said, he was a true, good friend. He was a priests’ priest. He was so unassuming.”

Father Jay T. Maddock, pastor of Holy Name Parish in Fall River often attended sporting events with Msgr. Harrington and was a great companion of his. He told The Anchor, “I first met him when I was 13. My father had gotten sick with cancer, so he was out of work. We had a big family, so the St. Vincent’s people at my parish in Mansfield asked my mother if a couple of the boys would like to go to summer camp. So me and my brother went to St. Vincent de Paul Camp. That was in 1962 and Msgr. Harrington was a seminarian at the time and he was the head counselor at the camp. And that whole experience was one of the reasons I thought about the priesthood, because I got to know the counselors — and they were all seminarians — and then I ended up working there a couple of summers in the kitchen. So I was actually at Msgr. Harrington’s ordination in 1964 — I think it was the first ordination I ever went to.

“After I was ordained, the bishop asked me to go back and study canon law, so then I started working at the diocesan Tribunal, so I worked with Msgr. Harrington all those years while he was running it. He was always available and always helpful to me.

“Then he and I, for several years, back when the Boston Red Sox did spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., we would go down for spring training. We had some great trips and lots of laughs, as you can imagine. I still go every year for two weeks, down to Fort Myers.

“He was a great friend, obviously a great priest, a great role model and mentor. He was always cheerful and he really had a great outlook on life. He was born of a strong faith and he never let anything overwhelm him.

“He retired 13 years ago because of health issues, but look at the retirement he had! He was busier than most people who are considered ‘active.’ He remained faithful to the Tribunal, he was always meeting with people at the Cardinal Medeiros Residence, he would still run out to fires, he helped celebrate Masses — but my perception was that he did it pretty much on a schedule that worked for him in terms of his health, because he worked to take care pretty good care of himself. Of course, everyone knows he played the saxophone and he would go do rehab on the ‘monkey bars.’ Only he would make light of something like that. He reached out to so many people and he touched the whole spectrum of life — from the healthiest to the sickest, from the richest to the poorest — and everyone in between. He just had that gift.”

Msgr. Harrington was the brother of the late Atty. Edward J. Harrington and Ann E. Callanan. He is survived by sisters Mary T. Cain of Framingham and Esther F. Gillis of Katy, Texas and many beloved nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. 


Msgr. Harrington was transferred to St. Mary’s Cathedral from New Bedford on July 6 with a Fall River Fire Department escort, where he lie in state accompanied by a Fire Department guard. 

Msgr. Harrington’s body was returned to New Bedford atop FRFD Engine 12, where burial followed in St. Mary’s Cemetery in that city. 

Remembrances may be made to the Fallen Firefighters Scholarship Fund, c/o Roger St. Martin, 140 Commerce Drive, Fall River, Mass., 02722.

Contributing to this story were Saunders-Dwyer Funeral Home in New Bedford, Kenneth J. Souza, and Dave Jolivet. 

The cover photo shows Fall River Fire Department personnel who served as pall-bearers loading Msgr. Harrington’s casket onto Engine 12 to take him to his final resting place at St. Mary’s Cemetery in New Bedford. The inset shows the monsignor’s fire gear and a fire bell which tolled at the end of his funeral Mass. The ringing of the bell represents the end of the emergency and the return to quarters, and is three rings of the bell, three times. Representatives of the fire department also recited the Firefighter’s Prayer at the Mass.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts