Chicagoland

Brothers Mulcrone begin new phases of priestly ministry

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
July 13, 2017

The brothers Mulcrone

Every year near the start of summer, priests across the archdiocese move to different assignments. Pastors retire. Associates become pastors. Priests start sabbaticals. Taking part in the change this year are two brothers who have long served unique congregations. They are Father Joe Mulcrone, who is retiring and stepping down as director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Deaf, and Father Tom Mulcrone, who is stepping down as chaplain to the Chicago Fire Department and remaining as full-time chaplain to St. Mary of Providence, 4200 N. Austin Ave.
Children assist Father Joe Mulcrone in signing the "Our Father" during Mass at the St. Francis Borgia Deaf Center, 8025 W. Addison St., on July 24, 2011. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Tom Mulcrone, who retired June 30 as Chicago Fire Department chaplain, reads names of deceased firefighters while Lieutenant Harold Turrentine of Chicago Fire Department rings the fire bell following Mass at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, May 26, 2014. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Every year near the start of summer, priests across the archdiocese move to different assignments. Pastors retire. Associates become pastors. Priests start sabbaticals.

Taking part in the change this year are two brothers who have long served unique congregations. They are Father Joe Mulcrone, who is retiring and stepping down as director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Deaf, and Father Tom Mulcrone, who is stepping down as chaplain to the Chicago Fire Department and remaining as full-time chaplain to St. Mary of Providence, 4200 N. Austin Ave., which operates a residence for women with developmental disabilities and day vocational programs.

Father Joe Mulcrone
“Retirement is a relative term for a priest.” That’s what Father Joe Mulcrone believes as the now-retired director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Deaf.

For 40 years he has served the deaf community and now has plans to help out with Masses on the weekends and visit the sick. He plans to continue to live at St. Francis Borgia Parish, 8033 W. Addison St., which is home to the archdiocese’s Catholic Deaf Center.

The archdiocese’s ministry to the deaf dates back to 1884 and began at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. The women religious at the school welcomed deaf children as students. In 1886, Jesuit Father Ponzigliaone began meeting with adults who were deaf.

“It’s been very consistent,” Father Joe said of the ministry. Until he got involved, it was mostly religious priests who served the deaf.

Father Joe never set out serve the deaf community. It was Cardinal John Cody who tapped him for the job in 1977 while he was teaching at Quigley Preparatory Seminary.

“He somehow remembered that my grandparents were deaf. He said, ‘There should be someone here for these people,’” the priest recalled the cardinal saying. “I never wanted to be anything except a parish priest. I never anticipated that my parish would be coterminous with the boundaries of the archdiocese.”

Both of Father Joe’s maternal grandparents were deaf. Scarlet fever left his grandmother without hearing when she was 1½ years old. Diphtheria caused
deafness in his grandfather when he was just 1 year old.

“I grew up in a family where deafness was normal,” he said. 

Over the past 40 years, he has seen ministry to the deaf change. 

“When I began in 1977, the predominant model in ministry in the deaf community was hearing people doing for deaf people,” he said. “More and more the effort has been to pull deaf people into ministry and get them involved.”

For example, at the St. Francis Borgia Deaf Center, where Mass is said at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday, most of the people leading the Mass — deacon, readers, ushers, choir and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion — are deaf.

To have a priest leading an Office for the Deaf full time is uncommon across the church in the United States. Here the office also employs a full-time religious education minister.
Looking back over his time as director of the Office for the Deaf, Father Joe is grateful for the experience. 

“This is a pretty selfish ministry. I’ve gotten so much more back from deaf people and their families than I could ever give them,” he said.

They’ve also changed his prayer life.

“I read the Bible entirely differently now. First of all, because deaf people, when they read the Bible, they read it visually. They don’t hear the words of Jesus so they see what Jesus is doing. They’ve taught me by their lives to read God’s word in a totally different way.”

That’s not all they’ve taught him. 

“There’s that great line in Second Corinthians where Paul says — and I never understood this until I really started working with this community — ‘when I am weak, then I’m strong.’ What working with this community over the years and their families has taught me that in their seeming weakness … they’ve taught me the real meaning of what it means to live life fully,” Father Joe said.

“To me that’s really been the great gift of all these years.”

Father Tom Mulcrone 
Unlike his older brother Joe, Father Tom isn’t retiring. He’s just stepping down as fire chaplain after 30 years of service. He will focus fully on being the chaplain at St. Mary of Providence, where he’s lived for many years. 

Father Tom became involved with the ministry to firefighters when he started helping the previous chaplain in 1981. Upon the chaplain’s retirement in 1987, Father Tom applied for the position. 

“It’s a parish on wheels. That’s how I’ve always described it,” said Father Tom, who like his brother always wanted to be a parish priest. “It’s a ministry of presence. Firefighters look for their chaplain.”

The chaplain of the Chicago Fire Department serves both firefighters and EMTs, and his ministry centers around the sacraments — baptisms, weddings, funerals, hospital visits — and, of course, going to fires.

“Over the course of 30 years I’ve responded to 1,480 extra-alarm fires,” said Father Tom, who kept a journal of the calls he responded to. When fires involve more than one alarm there’s a higher chance of a firefighter being injured or killed.

At a fire he tries to be a cheerleader, walking around and greeting people not fighting the fire and makes sure everyone knows he’s there if they need him or want to talk. He also goes to the hospital if something happens.

That’s not all he responds to. He’s attended over 1,900 special-duty calls, which happen when firefighters die in the line of duty, or are hospitalized, or whose family members are ill. 

Over the years the number of fires he responds to has gone down. 

“That’s a trend nationally. But the amount of pastoral situations that require the presence of the chaplain have increased.” 

As firefighters and paramedics get to know the chaplain better they tend to rely on him more. 

“You become their parish priest. If something happens in their family, good or bad, they tend to call you,” Father Tom said.

Ministering to the firefighters and EMTs has impacted his spirituality.

“Being the chaplain has changed the way I pray. It’s changed the frequency of my prayer,” he said. “It’s changed my style of preaching. It’s really changed me in many ways for the better.”

Like police, firefighters and EMTs, chaplains must have a certain amount of detachment because they see so much pain and tragedy and can’t internalize all of it. He has a network of people he can turn to for support.

“It’s also just prayer, finding myself retreating into prayer,” Father Tom said.

Over his 30 years as chaplain, 22 firefighters died in the line of duty.

“That’s the hardest thing you have to do is to ring somebody’s doorbell,” he said about breaking the news to families.

Firefighters and paramedics also die in accidents or suicides.
“While they’re tragic events, it gives way to incredible ministry,” he said.

One tragedy Father Tom says he will never forget was the Paxton hotel fire in 1993 in which 20 civilians died.

“It was just a brutal, brutal night. I was there almost from the get-go. It’s something you never forget,” he said.

The spirit of service is strong in the Mulcrone family. Besides the two priests, there are three brothers in law enforcement, a sister in education, one sister in dentistry and another in forensic sciences. This sense of service came from their parents.

“They spent their whole lives in service,” Father Tom said of his parents.

The family attended Resurrection Parish on the West Side, which is now closed, and lived on their father’s policeman’s salary in an apartment. His father volunteered regularly with the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“He would go by the parish and load up the car with boxes of food and deliver it to needy families. Usually every Saturday when he did this he took one of us along. It was obviously a teaching moment,” he said. “I don’t remember how old I was but one time I was with him and I remember asking him, ‘Dad, why are we bringing food to all these people when we could use a little help ourselves?’”

It wasn’t until Father Tom became an adult that he understood.

After the kids were raised, his mom, whose parents were both deaf, became an advocate for the deaf community with the Chicago Hearing Society. Her first language was American Sign Language.

Now that he’s no longer fire chaplain, Father Tom says he’s looking forward to spending more time with the residents at St. Mary of Providence and helping out at parishes.

He’s lived at the home for years but hasn’t been able to be their chaplain full-time because of his duties with the fire department.

“They are a joy and a delight,” Father Tom said of the residents at St. Mary of Providence. “They are the most innocent, most wonderful, most beautiful people you can ever meet. They don’t have a mean bone in their bodies and they offer unconditional love, because that’s all they know. Now, I can really truly be a chaplain. I am really looking forward to it.”

For information about the St. Francis Borgia Deaf Center, visit deafchurchchicago.weconnect.com. For information about St. Mary of Providence’s ministry to people with developmental disabilities, visit www.smopchicago.org.

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