Deacon begins new ministry as Detroit Fire Department's only Catholic chaplain

Fifty-two percent of Detroit's firefighters identify as Catholic, yet until June 1, they had no Catholic chaplain to minister to their spiritual needs during the most dangerous parts of their job. Now, Deacon Dan Gonos of St. Linus Parish in Dearborn Heights fills that need, an honor he says is a “small gesture” of his appreciation for their service. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

St. Linus' Deacon Dan Gonos is grateful for chance to serve those 'who run into danger when everyone else is running out'

DETROIT — Deacon Dan Gonos never dreamed of being a firefighter.

Unlike many little boys, he was never into the large red trucks, sliding down a firepole and being the hero of the day.

But 11 years into his diaconate ministry, Deacon Gonos, a deacon at St. Linus Parish in Dearborn Heights, now finds himself in a firehouse nonetheless, ministering to the Detroit Fire Department's Ninth Battalion.

“I’m one of those rare birds that never wanted to be a fireman as a kid,” Deacon Gonos told Detroit Catholic. “But sitting down talking to Chief George (Aren, chief chaplain of the Detroit Fire Department) I learned that 52 percent of the Detroit firefighters identified as Catholic, but they didn’t have a Catholic chaplain.”

Seeing the need, Deacon Gonos answered the call and began serving as a Detroit Fire Department chaplain on June 1, caring for the pastoral needs of 11 units spread across six firehouses on the city's east side.

As a chaplain, it’s Deacon Gonos’ responsibility to visit each firehouse in his battalion twice a month, occasionally being “on call” 24/7 for an entire week in order to respond to any emergencies for crews across the city.

When Aren explained the duties of the role, Deacon Gonos said, “I realized this is what I wanted to do.”

Deacon Dan Gonos visits with firefighters at the Engine 50, Ladder 23 fire station on Houston Whittier Street in northeast Detroit. Since June 1, Deacon Gonos began serving as the department's only Catholic chaplain. 

“It is mostly a ministry of presence,” said the Bloomfield Village resident, who has been married to Pat Gonos for 42 years. “Being a firefighter is an extremely stressful job. It takes a special kind of individual to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.”

As a chaplain, Deacon Gonos is viewed as “one of the crew,” he said. Firefighters spend shifts at the firehouse, often with a lot of downtime away from their families, broken up by episodes of high-pressure situations that cause a lot of stress, both physically and emotionally, on people who are often forgotten until there is an emergency.

“We look out for any firefighter if they are injured, going to the hospital to see them,” Aren said. “If it is a really serious injury, and the family is there, we gather them together to talk to them, pray with them and comfort them.”

Aren recalled one instance early in his ministry as chief chaplain in which a firefighter had been killed. “We got involved in comforting the family, being a listening post for people,” said Aren, a member of the Salvation Army.

The Detroit Fire Department has eight chaplains serving eight battalions — the department does not have a Third Battalion — with each battalion divided into two units, serving the various fire stations throughout the city. Ideally, a chaplain visits each unit once a month, Aren said. Deacon Gonos’ Ninth Battalion is comprised of six houses with 11 different units.

The “on-call” chaplain is equipped with a radio to receive emergency calls or has emergency calls forwarded to their cellphone. 

Aside from responding to injuries and being there for firefighters during their hour of need, fire chaplains also spend time with firefighters away from the stressful moments, when they have time to reflect upon previous calls or deal with long hours spent away from their families.

“I’m there to help firefighters with their relationship with God, bringing them closer to God and helping them with the stressful parts of their job,” Deacon Gonos said. “Even the most hardened person can’t handle the stress and nasty sights of the job for long without it having some sort of impact on them.”

A bulletin board inside the fire station honors firefighters who have served and fallen in the line of duty.

In the most dire cases, chaplains care for the families of firefighters who don't survive after being injured in the line of duty.

“We arrange for them to receive last rites, comforting the family in any way we can,” Deacon Gonos said.

In addition to his diaconate ministry, Deacon Gonos is the pastoral associate and RCIA coordinator for St. Linus Parish. After being ordained in 2008, he served for four years at St. Regis Parish in Bloomfield Hills and four more years at Christ, Our Light Parish in Troy before arriving at St. Linus.

He's also been involved in prison ministry, where he sees interesting parallels to his work as a fire chaplain. 

“The prison community is a community that gets no respect and is taken for granted,” Deacon Gonos said. “Firefighters certainly get our respect — how could they not, with what they do — but often, they’re ignored, in the background. When was the last time you set foot in a firehouse to say, ‘How are you doing? Thank you for your service.’ And they appreciate that; they really do.

“One Christmas, I decided on a whim to bring cookies to the local fire station where we live,” Deacon Gonos added. “It was a small gesture, but the look on their faces, the way they brighten ... they appreciate someone acknowledging their service.”

Becoming a chaplain is Deacon Gonos’ way of taking that appreciation to the next level, but he recognizes there are limits to his ministry as a deacon. 

Deacon Dan Gonos, right, chats with firefighters outside the Engine 50, Ladder 23 firehouse in northwest Detroit. Apart from ministering in stressful situations, Deacon Gonos' job is to be a listening ear, friend and supporter for the men and women who risk their lives in the face of danger.

“I’m the only Catholic (among the chaplains), which means it’s my job to organize a priest to celebrate a sacrament if needed,” Deacon Gonos said. “There are certain things we as deacons can’t do, such as say Mass, hear confessions, or administer the sacrament of the sick or last rites.”

Deacon Gonos said he is organizing a list of priests he can call on when support is needed.

“The main thing is being present and willing to listen. There are a lot of concerns, a lot of baggage with their jobs, so we listen and offer solutions when we can,” Deacon Gonos said. “In my short time as a chaplain, the sense of community I find is overwhelming.”

Deacon Gonos said he was initially surprised by how rough a firefighter's job can be in relation to a normal family life. 

“There are an inordinate number of divorces and family breakups, and again, that’s attributed to the stress of the job,” he said. “I want to be someone they are comfortable talking with about issues where they aren’t comfortable talking to their colleagues, superiors or even their family.”

Regardless of each firefighter’s faith — or even their willingness to talk about certain issues — Deacon Gonos feels a transformation in the firehouse when he visits. 

But moreover, he’s noticed an impact in his own ministry because of his work with some of Detroit’s bravest.

Inspired by the chaplains and firefighters who serve across the country, Deacon Gonos said his new ministry is a way for him to show appreciation for their sacrifices.

“I’m really too new to claim something dramatic in my ministry,” Deacon Gonos said. “It’s been more the other way, the impact they have had on me. I’ve seen the collegiality there, the sense of Christian charity, regardless of their religious persuasion. It’s the whole idea of love of neighbor. 

“When these guys go on call, it doesn’t matter if it's a close-nit family home or a crack house, they have an obligation to minster to people there. They take care of them, and they are there to minister to the damage — both physical and mental — as best they can.

“I think of the chaplain in New York on 9/11, who literally sacrificed his life saving others,” Deacon Gonos continued. “I probably will never find myself in that position, but still, the opportunity to minister to those who make that sacrifice, who run into danger when everyone else is running out — how could I not be there for these people, in some small way, showing my gratitude for the service they provide?”