OMAHA, Neb. — The case for the sainthood of Servant of God Father Edward Flanagan, the priest who founded Nebraska’s famous Boys Town community for orphans and other boys, is now headed to Rome.
“More than being just a humanitarian, he was a man driven by his love for Jesus Christ to care for children who were forgotten and abused,” said Omar Gutierrez of the Archdiocese of Omaha. “He is a great model for the priesthood and for what Catholic social teaching looks like in the real world.”
Gutierrez, who served as notary for the diocesan tribunal investigating the priest’s sainthood cause, said he was particularly struck by the stories of past Boys Town residents, now elderly men, who knew Father Flanagan.
“I have had World War II veterans weep in front of me as they recall what Father Flanagan did for them when they were just boys,” he told CNA June 22.
“I have witnessed in a unique way the amazing power of fatherhood.”
The Omaha Archdiocese closed the diocesan phase of the investigation with a June 18 Mass at Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral, with Archbishop George Lucas as celebrant.
The final documents produced by the diocesan tribunal were signed and stamped. Two copies of the tribunal’s report were packaged and sealed with wax, stamped with the archdiocesan seal. The apostolic nuncio will take the package to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The congregation can recommend whether Pope Francis should declare Father Flanagan to have demonstrated heroic virtue and to declare him “Venerable,” an important step on the path to beatification or canonization.
Father Flanagan helped at least 10,000 boys at Boys Town in his lifetime, and his influence extended around the world.
The priest was born in Ireland’s County Roscommon on July 13, 1886. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1912. He was assigned to what was then the Diocese of Omaha.
After working with homeless men in Omaha, he founded a boarding house for all boys, regardless of their race or religion. He soon moved his work to Overlook Farm on the outskirts of Omaha, where he cared for hundreds.
The home became known as the Village of Boys Town, growing to include a school, dormitories and administration buildings. The boys elected their own government to run the community, which became an official village in the state of Nebraska in 1936.
Steven Wolf, president of the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion and vice-postulator of his cause, said he thinks there is abundant evidence of the priest’s heroic virtue.
“He completely immersed his life in the Gospel and lived it,” Wolf told CNA. “He completely poured his life into saving these kids nobody else wanted to deal with.”
Father Flanagan integrated young boys, “built a society around them, and put love, God’s love, in the middle of their circumstances and helped them to become whole and complete people.”
“He could see the face of Christ in every child, and he wanted to help every child, not just be successful citizens, but also be saints.”
Wolf added, “We need people to look into this man’s life, look into this man’s motivation, and look at his example and live that example. Pray that we can make our culture a better place through the way that he lived the Gospel in his life.”
Gutierrez and Wolf could not speak about the tribunal findings, which are confidential. However, they noted that Archbishop Lucas alluded to its conclusions in his June 18 homily.
“You can imagine that we wouldn't go through all this trouble to collect this information and send it to the Holy See if it wasn't very good,” the archbishop said.
Father Flanagan’s work inspired 80 other Boys Towns around the world. The original Boys Town now serves about 80,000 kids and families each year.
After World War II, the priest helped care for orphans and displaced children in war-ravaged Japan, Germany and Austria, at the request of U.S. President Harry Truman. According to Wolf, Japan’s juvenile system was founded on a report by Father Flanagan.
He noted that the priest broke with the segregationist practices of his time, serving all boys, regardless of their race and religion.
After Boys Town moved from Omaha, the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn Boys Town to the ground because of its care for black children and Jews, Wolf said.
Father Flanagan’s response to racist criticism was to ask what color a person’s soul was.
Critics of his integrationist policy also included Catholic and Protestant clergy, as well as judges. Although the priest’s organization was always in debt, he turned down a wealthy Californian’s offer of $ 1 million if he turned Boys Town into a Catholic-only group.
“He was decades ahead of the civil-rights movement in the U.S., in what he was doing,” Wolf said.
Father Flanagan also worked to reform the criminal justice system’s treatment of minor offenders.
One of the priest’s famous phrases was “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.”
The priest rose to national and international prominence for his work. Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for his portrayal of Father Flanagan in the 1938 movie Boys Town. The actor later donated the trophy to the priest.
Father Flanagan died of a heart attack in Berlin on May 15, 1948. His remains are interred in a memorial chapel at Boys Town. He was declared a “Servant of God” in March 2013.
The findings of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s tribunal will be the basis for the postulator’s argument before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the congregation approves, Father Flanagan will be declared “Venerable.” If a miracle attributed to his intercession is recognized, he will be beatified; and if a second miracle is, he will be canonized.
Gutierrez said that two alleged miracles attributed to the priest are being investigated now.
He added that supporters of Father Flanagan’s cause can help through their prayers and through their support for the expenses of its advocates. The Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion is the main advocate for the priest’s canonization cause.
Among the people of Omaha, Father Flanagan’s reputation endures, said Gutierrez: “They remember him with an intimate fondness and with a surety that he will be made a saint someday.”