On the morning of the dedication of a life-sized statue of Father Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, rain poured down in his hometown of Ballymoe, Ireland. Steven Wolf, president of the Father Flanagan League Society and vice postulator of his cause for canonization, checked the weather. Rain was forecast throughout the country all day.
Wolf had traveled from Omaha, Nebraska to the little Irish village of 250 people. He brought with him the statue purchased by alumni of Boys Town to honor the famous priest.
Father Flanagan was born on July 13, 1886 in a whitewashed limestone, thatched-roof cottage, the eighth of 11 children in a hard-working farm family. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and was ordained a priest in 1912.
Tom Lynch, director of Community Programs at Boys Town and also director of their Hall of History Museum, explained that Father Flanagan came to Omaha as a diocesan priest to be with his older brother Patrick, who was also a priest.
ROOTS OF BOYS TOWN
“Father Flanagan saw men living on the streets, so he opened a shelter and called it a working men’s hotel,” Lynch said. Over time, men started showing up with drug and alcohol and mental problems. What they had in common were broken families, no education, and no skills. It inspired Father Flanagan to seek out homeless boys living in junk yards, railroad yards, and even prisons and offer them a better life.
“He went to a Jewish friend and borrowed $90 to rent his first home in 1917,” Lynch explained. “It was an old mansion that had been converted to a boarding house. In two weeks, he had 70 boys. By 1920 he needed a bigger facility to house them.” A priest with a crowd of homeless boys of different races and religions was not especially welcomed in neighborhoods, according to Lynch. Father Flanagan rented another building for a while until he was able to buy the Overlook Farm, about 10 miles west of Omaha.
“The property was beautiful with orchards and crops in the field, and a lake for swimming and fishing,” Lynch said. “Father Flanagan announced: ‘We are free and independent, we will build our own village.’” It was the start of Boys Town.
By the 1940s, the village had expanded to over 1,000 acres. At the public school, some boys were discriminated against and on average, they were around three years behind so Father Flanagan started a school for them. He created individual learning programs and also taught them trades. Church on Sunday was mandatory, but the denomination was of their own choosing. Father Flanagan had said, “Every boy must learn to pray; how he prays is up to him.”
ABUSE IN IRELAND
Father Flanagan was a social reformer, protecting the rights of children, fighting racism, closing reformatories, and insisting that every child had a right to basic necessities. The boys flourished under his supervision. At this same time, however, children in his homeland were not doing so well. In 1946, Father Flanagan received letters from Ireland begging him to investigate religious-run industrial schools that served poor and homeless children and unwed mothers. He went unannounced and was shocked.
After he returned to the U.S., Father Flanagan wrote letters to key people and spoke to a reporter, calling the institutions a disgrace where children were treated harshly and abused. The Irish government was furious and denounced him in the Irish parliament. Undeterred, Father Flanagan vowed to return to clean things up. However, after World War II ended, President Truman asked him to assist governments with programs for war orphans in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Austria, and Germany.
Father Flanagan complied with the president’s request in 1947-1948, planning to then get back to Ireland. He died of a heart attack in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948, however. Sadly, it would be another four decades before the truth became public. Beginning in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children over decades. If only Father Flanagan had been listened to.
Back in Ireland, before the dedication ceremony in November 2001, Wolf and 40 other Boys Town alumni climbed onto a bus outside their hotel, 10 miles from the village of Ballymoe. “It’s not going to rain on Father Flanagan’s day,” Wolf announced to the others. People smiled at his optimism. The rain kept coming though. There would be three bishops, the papal nuncio to Ireland, the U.S. ambassador, members of the Irish government, and a letter from their president would be read, and the Celtic Tenors would sing the U.S. and Irish national anthems.
As the bus rolled along on bumpy, country roads, the rain slowed. By the time they pulled into the village, where 1,800 would come for the ceremony, the clouds parted. The ceremony took place under a blue sky. After the ceremony, clouds moved back in and the rain resumed.
Many “God-things” seem to happen when Father Flanagan is involved, according to Wolf. He lived at Boys Town as a 14-year-old runaway from a single-parent home. Wolf graduated from high school at Boys Town where he had been the editor of the school newspaper and joined the Army National Guard while he was still a senior, which he just retired from after 38 years. He went on to earn a degree in journalism and master’s degree in public administration.
Wolf did not convert to the Catholic faith until years later when he had a family of his own and was a board member of the National Boys Town Alumni Association. “When I talk to other alumni, every single one of us calls that place home,” he said. “The essential ingredient is love. For that ingredient to be there for everyone, that’s God’s love and that’s what ties us all together. Father Flanagan would say, ‘It’s not my work, it’s God’s work.’”
CAUSE FOR CANONIZATION
In May of 2017, Omaha’s three-year investigation into Father Flanagan’s life received a decree of judicial validity by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, according to Father Ryan Lewis, the archbishop’s episcopal delegate for the Cause and also chaplain for the Omaha Legatus Chapter. The next step is to determine if “Servant of God” Father Flanagan lived a life of heroic virtue. If so, he will advance to the status of “venerable.” Generally, a miracle credited to his intercession will be required for beatification, and a second miracle for canonization.
Many Legates of the Omaha Chapter are also members of the Father Flanagan Guild, promoting his cause for canonization. Mass prior to the monthly meetings takes place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the heart of Boys Town where the nave on the west side holds Father Flanagan’s tomb.
“With the sexual abuse crises across the globe, to lift up someone like Father Flanagan at this time—an American priest who worked with youth and who did so in a heroic, dare I say in a saintly way—is an example that we need now more than ever,” said Father Lewis. “At a time when morale is down among priests, we can look to him with great pride that he was one of ours.”
Father Flanagan’s work lives on. Boys Town began accepting girls in 1979 and has become a national organization with programs across the country including in-home family counseling and programs for schools.
For more information about Father Flanagan, to download prayers, or to plan a pilgrimage with Mass and a visit to his tomb, go to www. fatherflanagan.org.
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing write