Tag Archives: Boy’s Town

Father Flanagan’s Visionary Cause Takes Modern Focus

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.


“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.”


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.’”


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


Fr. Edward Flanagan: The All-American priest

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hold them back” (Mt 19:14). It’s an appropriate introduction to the honor I recently received.

Fr. Ryan Lewis

I was interviewed by a local reporter in February after being named Legatus’ Chaplain of the Year at the Summit in late January. (Thank you for that honor, by the way! I am very humbled. I give all the credit to our amazing Omaha Chapter.)

The interview was interesting and far reaching. The kind and thoughtful reporter asked me one particular question that got me thinking. She asked, “What has been the most surprising thing in your priesthood thus far?” (For me, that’s 18 years this June.)

I paused for a second and then responded. “Being part of canonical processes that concluded with some of my brothers being removed from the priesthood for grave crimes against minors.” She was shocked, and I guess I was, too. I was ordained in 1999, and while I did study canon law, I didn’t see that coming!

And yet, I don’t regret that necessary work for a second. In April 2002, after meeting with 12 U.S. cardinals and bishops’ conference officers at the Vatican, Pope St. John Paul II told them he was “deeply grieved” by news of clerical sexual abuse and said there was no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm children.

Happily, my canon law studies also put me in a position to be the archbishop’s delegate for the cause of canonization of the Servant of God, Fr. Edward J. Flanagan. Overseeing this cause put me in deep contact with an American priest (born in Ireland, but he served in Omaha his entire priesthood) who spent his life serving young people and doing so in an exemplary way!

He founded Boys Town in Omaha to support at-risk youth in 1917. Then-Bishop Jeremiah James Harty had misgivings, but endorsed Fr. Flanagan’s work. Because the downtown facilities were inadequate, the priest established Boys Town 10 miles west of Omaha in 1921.

Fr. Flannagan

Under Fr. Flanagan’s direction, Boys Town grew to be a large community with its own boy-mayor, schools, chapel, post office, cottages, gymnasium, and other facilities where boys between the ages of 10 and 16 could receive an education and learn a trade. Father Flanagan did not believe in the reform school model, and stated, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.”

Boys Town, a 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy, was based on Fr. Flanagan’s life. Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance. Mickey Rooney also starred as one of the residents. Tracy spent his entire acceptance speech talking about the priest.

In 1948, Fr. Flanagan died while attempting to found Boys Town-like apostolates in Europe for the displaced children suffering after World War II.

Omaha Archbishop George Lucas opened Fr. Flanagan’s cause for canonization in 2012. The local work was completed three years later, and his cause is now in Rome at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Only God knows how long this process will take.

What I know from our extensive investigations of his life is that Fr. Flanagan served in a noble way for our youth. Boys Town is a national model for dealing with at-risk youth, and he was a sterling model of priestly zeal and compassion for them. Everything, in my mind, points to the sanctity of this committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

My hope and prayer is that the Vatican will see the same and quickly lift him up to the communion of saints as an American priest who spent his entire life serving young people in a saintly way. Given all we have been through, we could certainly use such a faithful, priestly model!

Servant of God, Fr. Edward J. Flanagan, pray for us!

FATHER RYAN LEWIS is the chaplain of Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School and chaplain of Legatus’ Omaha Chapter. Wikipedia.com contributed to this article.

Bringing Boys Town to Rome

Omaha chaplain Fr. Ryan Lewis is leading Fr. Flanaghan’s cause for canonization . . .

Father Ryan P. Lewis

Father Ryan P. Lewis
Omaha Chapter

Raised on a farm outside Omaha, 38-year-old Fr. Ryan P. Lewis was called to the priesthood early and ordained at 25. The canon law expert served as archdiocesan vice chancellor before becoming pastor of St. Thomas More in Omaha. His favorite part of the parish job is the school, where he teaches junior-high religion. Perhaps it’s no wonder he was chosen to lead the tribunal paving the path for the canonization of Boys Town founder Fr. Edward Flanagan, another priest devoted to the young.

Tell us about your call to the priesthood.

I had an early vocation. For me it was really asking the question, “OK, I’ve been told there are qualities in me to be a good priest, but is it for me?” So I went to college seminary right out of high school, where I learned how to pray and discern. After that I went to the North American College. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was rector all my five years. He had an enormous influence on me — the joy with which he lives his priesthood, his zeal for bringing folks to the faith and re-energizing those already in it. When I was vice chancellor, one hat I wore was media relations. I followed his approach to dealing with the media: be open and engage them, never be afraid.

How did you become acquainted with Legatus?

About 10 years ago George Weigel addressed the chapter. I’ve known George since my days in Rome, and the Legatus folks were kind enough to invite me to his talk. I was impressed. Later I met Tom Monaghan when I was studying canon law at the Catholic University of America — another positive encounter with Legatus. Two years ago our original chaplain got reassigned outside the archdiocese. When Archbishop George Lucas asked me to serve, I immediately accepted.

What impact has Legatus had on the archdiocese?

I can cite two examples of us having an impact this year alone. First, we co-sponsored an event with Creighton University Students for Life — a talk by Shawn Carney, co-founder of 40 Days for Life. We also met at a Planned Parenthood clinic, where I led everyone in an hour of prayer. There are a lot of local Catholic efforts to protest abortion prayerfully and peacefully, and I thought it was important for Legates to get involved. They’re pro-life, of course, but it was the first time most of them were out there on the front lines.

How do you approach your role as chaplain?

I bring a working-class, football-coach-type mentality to my chaplaincy. I stress the fundamentals: prayer, Mass, Confession, devotions like the rosary and reading Sacred Scripture. I really try to challenge them.

You have a vocation, of course. Any avocations?

I love to play golf. It’s my favorite thing to do when I get a day off. I’ve played with members of Legatus. I also love to walk and read. Right now I’m reading a biography of Fr. Edward Flanagan, Father Flanagan of Boys Town: A Man of Vision.

That wouldn’t be a random selection, would it?

Nope. On March 17, Archbishop Lucas formally opened Fr. Flanagan’s cause for canonization and named him Servant of God. He commissioned a tribunal to look into Fr. Flanagan’s life and writings with an eye toward sending the findings to Rome as a way to kick off the process that we hope leads to his canonization. He appointed me head of the tribunal. It’s very exciting but very daunting. Aside from examining his voluminous writings — mostly correspondence and articles — we have almost 200 folks to interview, and that number could grow. It’s a very thorough process, so it’s hard to predict when we’ll finish.