The Life, Legacy and Canonization Cause of Boys Town Founder Father Edward Flanagan
Father Flanagan was a priest who loved as Christ loved, brought hope where there was despair and comfort where there was mourning.
Father Flanagan talking with children in his hometown of Ballymoe, Ireland, in 1946. (photo: Boys Town Hall of History Archives)
The 1938 film Boys Town dramatizes the real-life work of Father Edward Flanagan, who established a village called Boys Town in Nebraska providing a home and an education for thousands of orphaned boys.
Two of the most famous actors of the time starred in the film. Spencer Tracy signed on to play the priest, and Mickey Rooney played the rogue youngster, Whitey Marsh. The film was shot on the Boys Town Campus just outside of Omaha with plenty of boys from the village used as extras. Tracy had spent weeks with Father Flanagan beforehand, studying his mannerisms so he could provide an accurate portrayal in a performance which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. Boys Town became a phenomenal hit, selling out theaters across the country.
I was a young boy when I first saw it. I remember the evening vividly. I was staying with my grandparents and it came on the Turner Classic Movies channel we would often watch together. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do know there was something about Tracy’s depiction of Father Flanagan that stayed with me throughout my adolescence. It gave me an enduring image of the priest as one who loves as Christ does, as one who brings peace where there is strife, hope where there is despair, companionship where there is loneliness, comfort where there is mourning and care where there is neglect. I don’t attribute my priestly vocation to a mere movie, of course, but looking back, I am incredibly grateful for the impact Boys Town had on my young mind’s view of the priesthood.
I was recently invited to attend the rite of tonsure of a former altar boy of mine who is studying for the priesthood at a seminary in Lincoln. New Yorkers like me don’t have too many occasions to travel to Nebraska, so when the opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to add to my itinerary a visit, or rather a pilgrimage, to Boys Town.
It was a special thrill for me to finally be able to visit the Boys Town campus and to pray before the tomb of Father Flanagan in the Dowd Chapel there. I was also very happy to meet with a team very active in promoting Father Flanagan’s cause of canonization who made time to answer a few questions. There is certainly a lot more to the Boys Town story than can be seen in the movie!
Steve Wolf is the Vice-Postulator for Father Flanagan’s cause, the President of the Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion and is also a former resident of Boys Town. Peter Kennedy is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Omaha and serves as the Director of the Father Flanagan League and Mary Turley directs the League’s Devotional Council.
Father Seán Connolly: Please provide for us a survey of Father Flanagan’s life.
Mary Turley: Father Edward J. Flanagan was born on July 13, 1886, in Leabeg, County Roscommon, Ireland. He was the eighth in a family of 11 children. It was believed that he was born premature and was very frail at birth, so his grandfather held him, keeping him warm by the fire. When he survived to the next day the family felt that the hand of God was on this child.
In 1904, Flanagan graduated from Summerhill College with honors and sailed for the United States. He wanted to become a priest.
In the United States, he enrolled in Mount Saint Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, and graduated in June 1906. He then entered Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, but left the next year due to poor health. The same thing happened when he later studied at the Gregorian University in Rome. His parents, some of his siblings, and an older brother who was a priest were living in Omaha, Nebraska. Each time his health failed he returned to his family in Omaha to recuperate. In the fall of 1909, he was accepted by the Royal Imperial Leopold Frances University in Innsbruck, Austria. The high altitude was good for his health and he was able to continue his studies there and was ordained with the Jesuits at Innsbruck in 1912.
When he again returned to Omaha in 1912, this time as a priest, he was assigned to the Diocese of Omaha.
Seeing the streets of Omaha filled with unemployed migrant farm workers because of a great drought in the summer of 1913, Father Flanagan responded to assist the homeless workers. In November 1913, he opened the Workingmen’s Hotel in downtown Omaha, where men could find shelter, a bed for the night and food. He helped many to obtain employment. As Father Flanagan listened to the stories of thousands of men, he heard over and over again, “It’s too late for me now, Father. If only someone had helped me when I was a boy.” This directed his attention to the plight of the neglected boys of the city.
Father Flanagan went out into the streets where he found homeless boys. He took in his first five: “My first two boys came from the juvenile courts, and three others, whom I had been befriending in my own small way to keep their bodies and souls together, I picked up off the streets.” Those first five boys were the real beginning of Father Flanagan’s work which would become famous the world over. By March 1918, there were so many boys that Father moved to a larger home. Throughout those years, Father Flanagan was studying to become a citizen of the United States and became one in 1919. His Boys’ Home was again so crowded that he searched for property until he found the present site, Overlook Farm west of Omaha, which he moved his Home to in 1921.
Father Flanagan and his boys had many difficult years in the building up of Overlook Farm. The boys never complained because they found love and safety in their new home. With the premier of the motion picture Boys Town in 1938, the Home became known internationally. Many people sent donations to Father Flanagan which he used to build up his Boys Home and help even more boys.
All through the 1930s, Father Flanagan became an acknowledged expert in the field of childcare. He toured the United States discussing his views on juvenile delinquency, the responsibilities of parents and society to help those who had been abandoned.
In 1947, he was invited by General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. War Department to go to Japan and Korea to study child welfare problems. He presented his completed report to President Harry S. Truman later in 1947.
Impressed by Flanagan’s work, President Truman requested that he conduct a similar tour of Austria and Germany to help construct a program for the many children orphaned by the years of war there. Father Flanagan left for Europe in the spring of 1948. During his tour, he suffered heart failure and died in Berlin, Germany, on May 15, 1948. There were memorial ceremonies in Germany so that the international community could pay tribute to this great man. Father Flanagan’s body was flown by a military plane to Omaha where funeral services were held in Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, located at the heart of his beloved Boys Town where he was also laid to rest.
As a former citizen of Boys Town, you are uniquely suited to answer this question. What was Father Flanagan’s vision for Boys Town and what sets it apart from institutions such as orphanages or industrial schools?
Steve Wolf: Father Flanagan acting on, and fulfilling his vision is one significant thing that set him apart in his day, and even now. Many talk. He delivered. Orphanages at the turn of the 20th century were essentially warehouses for discarded and unwanted children. Many, but not all, were also juvenile labor facilities. Far from being shining examples of Christian charity, at many of these institutions children were oppressed, abused, and treated as outcasts, and second-class citizens. These institutions would also segregate their wards or refuse to accept children unless they were a specific race, religion or nationality.
Father Flanagan genuinely believed and treated every child, as a creation of God, deserving every measure of dignity, respect, and self-worth. He accepted every single child regardless of race, religion or economic standing. This was scandalous to society at the time. He brought them up in a loving environment, and promoted their spiritual, social, physical and educational well-being so they would be productive citizens, and not dregs on society. He was decades ahead of the civil rights movement in America, focusing on the start with the content of person’s character, and building that character with the love of Jesus Christ.
Tell us about the purpose and work of the Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion.
Deacon Peter Kennedy: The League really began as an organic outgrowth of the devotional teams present on the Boys Town campus and in the Archdiocese of Omaha. They had been meeting, praying and leading pilgrimages to the Boys Town Campus for years, but saw they needed more formal incorporation if they wanted to pursue an investigation into Father Flanagan’s “heroic virtue” at the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. So, the League continues to support the devotional councils in their work of sharing the story of Father Flanagan’s life and work, supporting new devotional groups wherever they spring up, and serving as the formal actors in Father Flanagan’s cause at the Vatican. We work with the postulator, seek out and help to gather information about alleged miracles wrought through his intercession, and otherwise raise funds for the promotional work here in the U.S. and abroad.
Tell us about Father Flanagan’s spirituality and why he can be considered to have lived a life of heroic virtue.
Deacon Peter Kennedy: Father Flanagan’s spirituality can best be described as that of an Irish shepherd boy. I recall the story of one former associate priest, Father Peter Dunne: “No matter how early I rose for prayer, I’d always find Father Flanagan had beat me to the chapel.” His spiritual life began early, fostered by his parents and grandparents. He was a child of ill health, having been born prematurely and spent much of his time tending sheep and praying the Rosary. He was never known to go anywhere without one, having had a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.
As for his heroic virtue, there are really too many stories to mention them all but I think the easiest way to explain it is, he didn’t go looking for difficult tasks but he did them when and where they presented themselves, no matter how difficult. Like Christ, he recognized the suffering in others, and sought to live in solidarity with them.
One of my favorite stories is a very simple one: donors approached him wanting to build him a proper house on the Boys Town campus, but he refused until the boys had a proper house. He chose, rather, to live in a rat-infested garage with little heat until every boy was housed. This, even though he was in frail health himself. This is the kind of life Father Flanagan lived daily. He looked upon every child, regardless of race, color or creed, as a treasure worthy of his every attention. In the aftermath of World War II, he even did this for his “enemies,” reaching out to the children of Japan and Germany, where he would ultimately lay down his life as a missionary in a foreign land.
What would one be able to see on a visit or pilgrimage to the Boys Town campus?
Mary Turley: When visiting the campus of Boys Town for a Father Flanagan pilgrimage, one will follow in the footsteps of Father Flanagan and walk where he walked and pray where he prayed. You will visit a home that Father Flanagan lived in, the museum that tells the story of Father Flanagan and Boys Town and pray at Father Flanagan’s tomb. You will also listen to alumni of Boys Town tell their story of living and growing at Boys Town and how the legacy of Father Flanagan has touched their life. The pilgrimage begins at Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic church that Father Flanagan designed. The pilgrimage also ends there with Mass.
Why should Father Flanagan be canonized?
Steve Wolf: It is not for anyone associated with the Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion to suggest that he should be canonized, but it is fair for us to say that a thorough examination of his life, work and theological review of his words and actions are likely to demonstrate to the Church that he led a life filled with multiple examples of heroic virtue. If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints agrees with what we see, and believe to be true, then moving forward in this canonization process will be right and just. The next step would be to elevate his status from that of a Servant of God to a Venerable. We also have an active global groundswell of devotion to him and the example he set. There are 24 reported alleged miracles, and we pray that some of those will be confirmed by the Holy Father.
What progress has been made on his cause?
Steve Wolf: This cause is moving at a pace that is very active and steadily progressing when you examine when we started this devotional effort and where we are now, in comparison of the nearly 2,000 open cases at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The Congregation’s historical commission completed their work in 2018, and we’re awaiting the announcement of the starting date for the theological commission to review the Positio. We are awaiting the receipt of some additional personal testimony that we hope will lead to an opening for archdiocesan level medical tribunal for some of our active alleged miracle reports. The pandemic has slowed down this process for all causes.
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