by Effie Caldarola
THE TALL, GOOD-looking priest had the craggy profile prompting the comment, “He had the map of Ireland written all over his face.”
Father Edward Flanagan was the founder of Boys Town, an innovative village for runaway and orphaned boys near Omaha, Neb., a landmark that revolutionized the treatment of neglected kids.
Although his isn’t a household name today, when he died in Berlin, Germany, in 1948, Father Flanagan was something of a media sensation. His passing, on a mission for the U.S. government studying child welfare concerns in postwar Europe, was covered extensively by the national press.
And a decade before that, the great actor Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for portraying the priest in a Hollywood movie.
The Archdiocese of Omaha has declared Father Flanagan “a Servant of God,” which propelled his cause for sainthood to Rome.
So who was this man? Father Flanagan was born in County Roscommon in Ireland, immigrated to the U.S. with his sister, and planned to study for the priesthood in New York. But ill health sent him west to Omaha to be near siblings, and after recuperating, he became a priest for the then-Diocese of Omaha.
Seeds of Homelessness
A hundred years ago, the young priest secured an old house in downtown Omaha to house neglected boys. He had been working with homeless men, but he became convinced that the seeds of homelessness start young.
According to the Father Flanagan League’s biography of him, he made an “exhaustive study of the juvenile justice system and immersed himself in studying the social theories and insights of his time.”
“There are no bad boys,” he famously declared. “There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.”
Four years later, he bought a farm 10 miles west of Omaha. He turned it into not a rough reform school or orphanage, which was the rule of the day, but into a village with its own youthful mayor, a police force, fire station, post office and dormitories full of loved and cared-for young citizens.
Eventually, he would have a nationally renowned choir, sports teams that rivaled any in the state, and kids, particularly during the Great Depression, who would show up on his doorstep alone but confident they had found a home.
When I was a child growing up in rural Nebraska, Boys Town was a marker on the road to Omaha. Today, Boys Town is engulfed by Omaha, but endures as an incorporated Nebraska village.
I often go to daily Mass at the beautiful Gothic chapel that has stood on the Boys Town campus for more than 60 years. I love praying in the tiny, beautiful room at the back of the church where the vault holding Father Flanagan’s body is inscribed with his words. He’s very present there.
Saints are usually a few steps ahead of their times, and Father Flanagan was way ahead. He integrated Jews and blacks into Boys Town, earning threats from the Ku Klux Klan. He honored other faith traditions, saying all boys should pray but should pray in their own way.
He also opposed the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and accepted nearly 200 Japanese-Americans to live in housing available at Boys Town.
Boys Town, which now welcomes girls, has changed since its founder’s death. The national movement that advocates keeping kids in their own homes is impacting the need for residential places like Boys Town. But Father Flanagan’s vision continues to mold the child welfare debate.
Father Flanagan’s expansive and inclusive love and his sense of justice is a good model for our divided times.
Caldarola writes a syndicated column for Catholic News Service.