Edward Joseph Flanagan was born in 1886 in Leabeg, County Roscommon, to John and Honoria Flanagan, both fluent Irish speakers. He was the eighth child in a family of eleven children.

Pictured, above, a scene from the "Boys Town" movie with Spencer Tracy as Father Edward Joseph Flanagan.

Some sources state that this baby was born prematurely, and that the family was advised that he might not survive through the first days of his life. His grandfather Patrick, however, had a different view, and kept this baby wrapped in a blanket lying on his chest next to the hearth in the kitchen over the following days and weeks. His grandfather’s warmth, prayers by all the family, and the love that was poured over him are testaments to his grandfather’s faith, love and determination that this child would survive.   

The padre's parents were farmers and were said to be intelligent and religious, handing down many traditions of religion, and prayers said in the family home were very much a part of those traditions. Given that he was not expected to survive, he was always a frail child, so there were no real expectations placed on him. Adored by all his family -- all highly intelligent -- he was sent out to herd the sheep as a means of keeping him occupied, as this was considered a job which would not tire him out. This pastoral work, in his family’s opinion, would give him much time to think, to study, to read and to pray. He would spend long hours with his father and grandfather, who taught him about the struggle for Irish Independence and in Edward's own words, he is quoted as bestowing this accolade to his father:

It was from him I learned the great science of life, of examples from the lives of saints, scholars and patriots. It was from his life I first learned the fundamental rule of life of the great Saint Benedict about 'Prayer and work.' "

His family, who were always concerned for his welfare, thought long and hard about his future, knowing how physically frail he was. In their opinion, he would be better suited to a life of service within the Roman Catholic Church. He attended Cloonboniffe Primary National School before he moved to Summerhill College, Sligo, graduating in 1904.

Following his graudation he set sail for America with his sister Nellie, who happened to be emigrating to the United States, to reside with her brother, Fr. Patrick Flanagan. She would serve as his housekeeper as he served the people of St Patrick's Church, in Omaha, Nebraska. Edward brought all the 32 counties' sods of grass with him. He attended Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmittsburg, Maryland, where he began his fundraising events almost immediately. A gifted and brilliant orator, he invited Irish-Americans to walk on their native soil for $1 a time, establishing himself as a man who can get things done. In 1906, at Emmitsburg, he received his Bachelor of Arts and then went on to receive a Master of Arts.

By the end of his studies, he had fallen ill with pneumonia, a disease he was prone to since childhood, and went to reside with his brother so that their Nellie could look after him. When he had recuperated sufficiently, he then went on to study at St. Joseph’s Seminary, in Dunwoodie, New York, (left) before traveling to Italy, where he served a term as an Advent preacher at St. Sylvester’s Basilica in Rome, where he fell ill again and returned to Omaha, so his sister could nurse him back to health. Once on the mend, he got a job as an accountant with Cudahy Packing Co. in Omaha, Nebraska, to earn a living and to recuperate in the warmth, care and comfort of his brother and sister. This allowed him to build up his strength before once again embarking on his pastoral care duties.

This time he moved to the University of Innsbruck, Austria, to complete his studies for the priesthood, where he was ordained a priest in 1912. His first Mass was in St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck,  with many of his family present. He then served periods in O’Neill, Nebraska, as assistant to his brother Pat in Omaha, and then went on to serve at St. Philomena’s.

About six months later, during Holy Week in 1913, Edward Flanagan was transferred to St Patrick's Church to aid and support the ailing pastor, Fr. John T. Smith. At 6 p.m. that Easter Sunday, Omaha was struck by a violent tornado, destroying one third of the city, killing 155 people. Hundreds were left homeless and many, many people were put out of work. Flanagan set about administering to the needs of all those affected. By 1915, his outreach had incorporated the many seasonal workers who had been stranded and out of work because of a continuing drought in Omaha.

With so many desperate and homeless people to administer to, he found an old abandoned garage on a side street, and with assistance from volunteers, they spread straw on the floor and went around seeking people who were sleeping rough in coal bunkers, on the train tracks, and on the streets. Then, he had discussions with Bishop Scannell to convince him of the need to open a proper shelter for all these people, mainly men. By November of that year, he had acquired sufficient monies to buy the Old Burlington Hotel. He then recruited homeless men to clean and repair it, and before long 57 men had moved in.

The following year, when all these men had found jobs with board on the farms, Flanagan had acquired a much larger premises on the corner of Capitol and 13th Street. He called it ‘The Working Men’s Hotel.‘(right) It housed up to 1,000 men. When the USA entered the war in April 1917, The Working Men’s Hotel soon emptied as all these men enlisted. This did not mean the end of the accommodation, as Flanagan, always on the lookout for homeless people, soon found a different kind of occupant -- drifters and other down-and-outs.  He always had a listening ear for people with problems and soon learned that their story was always the same -- none of them had come from a loving, caring  family environment, all were victims of parental neglect or broken homes, had been left orphaned or had been deserted by the family. 

By this time, combined with the support of the Diocese of Omaha’s Bishop Jeremiah Harty, he took seven boys from the courts and established a healthy routine for them with the aid of men from the courts. With the permission and the support of Harty in 1917, he opened his first home for boys in the old Byron Reed building at 25th and Dodge. All too soon, the number of boys outgrew this building, so he acquired another building, which happened to be the former German-American House, at 4206 South 13th Street. By Christmas of that year, he had the capacity for 150 young boys in the home. With his great ability and oration skills for fundraising and for motivating people, he had soon captivated the hearts and minds of the Mother Superior of the Notre Dame Sisters in Omaha. Combined with all her young nuns, and an army of trained teachers, he soon had his orphanage and school on a solid footing. Every boy was tested as to their ability, and each boy would begin to learn at their own pace.  

By March 1918, his name became synonymous with the welfare and rights of children and he received the deeds of Overlook Farm. He had five new buildings constructed for his boys and was able to move them to their new home by October 1922. Overlook Farm was then incorporated into the Village of Boys Town. To instill into all the boys that they should not take everything for granted, he encourage them to pray every morning and say the rosary every day. That some were late every morning did not deter him from his goal of meeting their physical needs for shelter, food, warmth, their emotional need for love and their spiritual need for prayer. One particularly well-welll-traveled remark attributed to him was, "Every boy should learn how to pray, how he prays is up to him."

By this time, with the orphanage and school under the care of the devoted Notre Dame Mother Superior and all her nuns, plus the army of schoolteachers, he decided to make an exhaustive study of the juvenile-justice system. He undertook the enormous task of traveling to 31 American states and 12 countries in Asia and Europe, immersing himself in the studies of social theories, the justice system and the welfare system in all of these states and countries, in his endeavor to find the best solutions for nurturing the children under his care.

By 1938, he was internationally known, and had received many awards for his work. He was asked to serve on many committees and boards dealing with the welfare of children. He tutored other clergy, who were in awe of his knowledge of the justice system, child care and related subjects. U.S. presidents and other world leaders and senators, congressmen and other powerful people sought his advice on all child-welfare policies. Pope Pius XI was so impressed by the dedication of this Irish priest to the cause of child welfare that in 1938 he bestowed on him Domestic Prelate, his title as the Right Reverend Monsignor Flanagan.

In 1946, he made his last trip to Ireland, where his fury had no bounds when he found himself dismayed that the institutions that housed the young, vulnerable, homeless Irish orphans and young women were treated with cruelty and virtual imprisonment. He publicly spoke out about these conditions, calling them “a national disgrace."  The media and OIreachtas [Irish Parliament] were none too happy with Flanagan’s outspoken comments -- to silence him, they pressured him to leave Ireland. In attempting to offer solutions to the disturbing institutionalized care that Ireland offered, he was publicly ridiculed and ostracized by Ireland's government and by the officials of the Christian Brothers order. It was among Flanagan’s dying wishes that his mission work would be brought to Ireland.

In 1947, after World War II, President Truman asked Flanagan to travel to Asia and Europe to attend discussions about children who had been displaced and orphaned by the war. In 1948 he made similar trips to Austria and Germany, all in the name of child welfare. He died in Germany of a heart attack May 15, 1948.  At his own request, he was interred at Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, in Boys Town.   

Here are highlights of Father Flanagan's legacy:

  • The present-day Boys Town annually provides direct and indirect care to some 1.4 million youths and families, so that combined with the international success of his mission since he first provided shelter for people in Omaha, his legacy of care continues. As he put it, “This is not my work, it is God’s work.“
  • In 1938, a film was made based on the life of Flanagan, with some of the scenes filmed at Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy, who won an Academy Award for best actor. Tracy spent his entire Oscar acceptance speech talking about Flanagan, adding “If you have only seen him through me, then I thank you.” Loath to hand over his Oscar to Flanagan, a replica was made for him with the words inscribed : "To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kind simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy."
  • Also in 1938, a short MGM documentary was made with Flanagan appearing as himself, giving a tour of Boy’s Town called "The City of Little Men."
  • A sequel was also made starring Spencer Tracy, titled “Men of Boys Town,“ released in 1941.
  • Stephen McNally played Flanagan in the 1957 episode of the ABC-TV religion and anthology series "Crossroads."
  • In 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 4¢ Great Americans series postage stamp honouring him.
  • Father Flanagan is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
  • On February 25, 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, opened the canonization process for Flanagan. At a March 17, 2012, prayer service at Boys Town's Immaculate Conception Church, he was given the title "Servant of God," the first of three titles bestowed by the Church before canonization. The investigation was completed in June 2015 and the results forwarded to the Vatican. If the Vatican approves the local findings, Flanagan would be declared venerable. The next steps would be beatification and canonization.

A priest with a heart, soul and love of all humanity, the ability to inspire an international response to provide sorely needed care for others, even in the present-day materialistic society, Father Edward Flanagan deserves his place in the canonization process, so say all of us.

Sláinte!

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Tags: Activism, Child Welfare, Emigration, Faith, Immigration, Philanthropy

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