LARGO – The Largo Fire Department is mourning the loss of one of its first chaplains, the Rev. Paul Pierce.
“He’s beloved. The department absolutely loved him,” said Assistant Chief Doug Swartz.
The department had become Pierce’s “flock,” Swartz said.
“The chaplain had a passion for service above self. He really knew how to put the work he did for the church and fire department above all else. His family was important; we were a part of that family,” Swartz said. “He was a very caring soul that would want to take care of everybody.”
Pierce, 68, was still actively volunteering with the department as recently as Dec. 18, when he gave the invocation at the Largo Commission meeting.
But his battle with prostate cancer took a turn for the worse, metastasizing to his spine, said Fire Deputy Chief Shelby Willis. He died Feb. 6.
“(The cancer) kind of came back with a vengeance,” Swartz explained. “Just recently, he had gone under care of hospice and they had stopped treatment on it.”
Pierce began volunteering with the department in 2001, one of four such religious leaders that the department brought on to minister to firefighters as well as members of the community in emergency situations. The timing proved providential.
“They were fortunately in place when the events of Sept. 11 took place,” Swartz said.
Pierce’s brother was a firefighter in Massachusetts when he died, creating a personal call for Pierce to serve, Swartz added.
“He carried a spirit and just a real excitement about what we did. He was like a little kid out there,” he said. “The biggest thing for me was the smile that he brought and the comfort and the compassion he was able to bring to our guys and gals on the line.”
Pierce looked after the mental wellbeing of his flock, providing words of comfort or counsel and sometimes just a calming presence.
“There are certain triggers that evoke some emotions even in the most seasoned firefighter or paramedic,” Swartz said.
His commitment to the Largo firefighters was by no means the beginning of his career. Pierce was pastor of First Baptist Church in Watertown, Mass., and later an associate pastor for Faith Community Church in Largo. He also served as chaplain to the Largo police and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Pierce studied at International Seminary in Florida as well as Boston University and held a master’s degree in theology.
Before becoming ordained in 1984, Pierce was elected selectman in Stewartstown, N.H., and helped established a health center for the Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital. He also owned and operated a grocery store.
Pierce was active in promoting voluntary prayer in schools, helping to author the Massachusetts law that allowed for an observed moment of silence. As part of National Prayer Committee, he was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan and was interviewed on the Phil Donahue Show, The Today Show and for Time Magazine. Pastor Paul also hosted a radio program in Boston, Mass.
He was a missionary in Haiti, and in Florida, he taught at Florida Beacon Bible College and was director of Tampa Bay Christian Network.
A memorial service for Pierce was held Feb. 12. To honor Pierce, his family requests donations be sent to Suncoast Hospice in his memory.