Fr. Edward Flanagan
Edward J. Flanagan was the eighth of eleven children born to John and Nora Flanagan. The Flanagans were a hard working farm family. All were raised sharing the modest and cramped quarters of the home at Leabeg. Edward was baptized at St. Croan Parish in Ballymoe. He attended Drimatemple National School, near his home, began his secondary education in 1901, at age fifteen and completed it at age eighteen graduating with academic distinction from Summerhill College in Sligo, County Sligo.
Perhaps due to his condition at birth, Edward was frail and often struggled with illnesses throughout his entire life. Despite this he was determined and optimistic to accomplish the deeds in front of him. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “You also may not know that I was the little shepherd boy who took care of the cattle and sheep. That seemed to be my job as I was the delicate member of the family and good for nothing else, and with probably a poorer brain than most of the other members of the family.”
The Flanagan’s were a devout, religious family and attended church in nearby Ballymoe, across the river in Galway. The Rosary was their family prayer and often when they went looking for young Eddie, he could be found praying his Rosary in some spot. Sometimes he and his father would pray the Rosary in the rain and Rosaries in hand go together looking for lost sheep.
He was clearly formed for his life long mission work during the days of his youth in Ireland. “The old-fashioned home with fireside companionship, its religious devotion and its closely-knit family ties is my idea of what a home should be. My Father would tell me many stories that were interesting to a child — stories of adventure, or the struggle of the Irish people for independence. It was from him I learned the great science of life and heard 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, ‘pray and work.'”
Coming to America
He emigrated to America in 1904, with his sister Nellie. They sailed out of Queenstown in County Cork on the S.S. Celtic in late August, arriving at Ellis Island, New York on August 27th. He stayed with his Mother’s relatives until he began his studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, arriving for the opening event of the school year, the annual Barbecue Day on October 19th. He graduated with honors from Mount St. Mary’s College on June 29, 1906, with an A.B. degree that qualified him for entrance in Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York.
In the first year of his studies he contracted double pneumonia and because of his weak lungs was unable to fully recover and was told by the doctors he would have to leave the seminary for at least a year.
He moved to Omaha, Nebraska in 1907, to live with his brother, Father P.A. (Patrick) Flanagan, so that his sister Nellie, who was Father P.A.’s housekeeper, could nurse her younger brother back to health.
In August of 1907, after a complete rest, he sailed for Italy from the Port of New York. In Rome he lived at Capranica College, with classes at the Gregorian University. When the Roman winter set in, he became sick again, returning to America on January 29, 1908, aboard the S.S. Cedric.
He re-joined his family in Omaha, resting and recuperating until he was strong enough to work. He found a job as an accountant with the Cudahy Packing Company in Omaha, where he worked until his restored health allowed him to resume to his seminary studies.
In September of 1909, Edward Flanagan left New York on a ship bound for Rotterdam, where he would disembark and begin his journey across Germany to Innsbruck, Austria to complete his studies at the Royal Imperial Leopold Francis University. The calling he had first heard at the tender age of six years old was fulfilled with his ordination to the priesthood on July 26, 1912. His first mass was in St. Ignatius Church in Innsbruck.
His Work and His Mission
Soon after his ordination, he boarded the S.S. Cincinnati for New York, and from there continued on to Omaha, where he received his first parish assignment from the Bishop’s office. He was to follow his brother Pat as assistant pastor to the Irish community at St. Patrick’s Church in O’Neill, Nebraska, where Pat had spent his first parish assignment after his arrival in Omaha in 1904.
Six months later, in Holy Week of 1913, Father Edward was transferred to St. Patrick’s Church in Omaha to assist the ailing pastor, Father John T. Smith. At six o’clock P.M. on Easter Sunday, a violent tornado struck Omaha, destroying one third of the city. The morning after the tragedy, Father Flanagan was out with mortician Leo Hoffman picking up the bodies of the dead and making arrangements for their decent burial. The tornado left 155 people killed, hundreds homeless, and fathers of families without work.
For the next two years, Fr. Edward ministered to the needs of those affected by the tornado and then in 1915, his outreach continued in a new area: finding shelter and food for the many seasonal workers who became stranded in Omaha without work due to the drought. As the cold winter approached, Father Edward found an old garage on a side street of the city, spread straw on the floor and gave the men he found sleeping in coal bunkers near the tracks, a warmer place to stay. He received permission from Bishop Scannell to open a shelter for the men, and by November had acquired the old Burlington Hotel, recruited the homeless men to clean it up and moved in fifty-seven of them.
The following spring, when the men left for available farm labor, Father Edward found a larger place—an old boarding house on the corner of Capitol and Thirteenth Streets in January 1916. He called it “The Workingmen’s Hotel” where that winter he sheltered up to one thousand men. With the Declaration of War by the United States in April of 1917, the Workingmen’s Hotel emptied as many of the homeless and jobless men enlisted. However, word of the hobo paradise in the middle of Omaha spread and soon Father Edward’s shelter was filled with a different kind of occupant. As he listened to the stories of these drifters, he realized the story was always the same—none of them had come from a loving and caring family, all were victims of parental neglect or broken homes, or homes where a parent had died or deserted.
At this time he decided to make an exhaustive study of the juvenile justice system and also immersed himself in studying the social theories and insights of his time. In the summer of 1917, he took seven boys from the courts, met with them three times a week and established a healthy routine for them. By November, he knew his purpose, and with the permission of Omaha Diocesan Bishop Jeremiah Harty on December 12, 1917, he moved five boys, ages eight to ten, into his first home for boys in the old Byron Reed Building at 25th and Dodge. He quickly outgrew that building and on June 1, 1918 moved his now 32 boys to the former German-American Home at 4206 South 13th Street. By Christmas, there were over 100 boys in the Home and soon the capacity of 150 boys was reached. With help from the Mother-Superior of the Notre Dame Sisters, and an army of well-trained teachers, he put his school program on a solid footing so that in the fall each boy could begin classes on his level.
On May 18, 1921, he received the deed to Overlook Farm, constructed five buildings for his boys, and was able to move them to their new Home by October 22, 1921. Overlook Farm is now the incorporated Village of Boys Town.
In addition to the daily Divine Office, Father Flanagan had a particular devotion to Mary and prayed the Rosary everyday. No one could ever seem to arrive in the morning at the chapel before he did. He encouraged every boy to pray; his famous quote is, “Every boy should pray; how he prays is up to him.”
His Mission and Legacy
Father Flanagan’s mission work took him to 31 states and to twelve countries in Asia and in Europe. More than 6,000 youth were under his direct care during his lifetime. U.S. Presidents and other world leaders sought his counsel. He advised, was studied and inspired other clergy and youth care workers throughout the world. Eighty-nine programs across the globe are directly inspired by his example.
In 1946, Father Flanagan visited his beloved Ireland for the last time. He toured prisons, industrial schools for youth and youth care facilities operated by the Christian Brothers. He openly condemned the youth care institutions he observed as a “disgrace to the nation.” Father Flanagan was no mere critic. He offered Ireland a solution and implored his native countrymen to adopt it. For this he was publicly ridiculed and ostracized by the national government and officials of the Christian Brothers. It was among Father Flanagan’s dying wishes that his mission work would be brought to Ireland.
He prophesized before his passing in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948, “That the work will continue you see, whether I’m there or not, because it’s God’s work, not mine.” Today his mission has grown to Boys Town program locations in 10 states and Washington D. C., two hospitals (one on the main campus), a national training center and national hotline. Today, Boys Town provides direct and indirect care to 1.4 million youth and families annually.