Introduction: In 1917, Father Edward J. Flanagan, a young, immigrant priest from Ireland became discouraged in his work with transient, poor and homeless men in Omaha, Nebraska. He asked his Bishop if he could shift his ministry to helping boys and the Bishop approved of the change. To begin, Father Flanagan borrowed $90 from a friend in December of 1917 and used it to pay the rent on a rundown, drafty boardinghouse that became his first home for boys. This Home for Boys welcomed all boys, regardless of their race or religion; and, soon, youngsters from all over Omaha and elsewhere began showing up at the doorstep.
In 1938, Hollywood produced “Boys Town,” a very popular movie about Father Flanagan and Boys Town. Father Flanagan became an acknowledged expert in the field of childcare and lectured widely on juvenile delinquency. After World War II, President Harry Truman asked Father Flanagan to travel to Asia and Europe to attend discussions about children left orphaned and displaced by the war.
The Founder of Boys Town: Father Flanagan was born July 13, 1886, in Leabeg, County Roscommon, Ireland. He was the eighth child in a family of eleven children; and he was frail from birth. In a biography published by the “Father Flanagan League,” it is reported Edward’s parents were hard-working farmers, intelligent and very devoted to their religion. Father Flanagan wrote this about his home:
- “The old-fashioned home with its 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, 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, “Prayer and work.”
As Edward grew older, his father assigned him to take complete care of the sheep and cattle. Edward’s duty was to keep the animals from wandering into the dangerous peat bogs that bordered their property on two sides. This pastoral work gave him much time to think, to study, to read and to pray.
In an April 26, 1942 letter, Father Flanagan wrote: “…You also may not know that I was the little shepherd boy who took care of the cattle and the 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. I was sent away to school to study for the Priesthood, as I stated above, I wasn’t much good for anything else; so my job as a shepherd boy filled in very nicely in preparation for my life’s work afterward.”
Boys Town Expands Rapidly: The first home for boys was quickly filled with 50 residents, and Father Flanagan had to turn away many others. In 1918, the boys were moved to a much larger home called the German American Home that would hold a hundred and fifty boys. In this larger facility, Father Flanagan, with the assistance of nuns the Bishop had assigned to help, could better pursue educational activities with the boys, something he knew was very important to their ultimate success.
The next step in expanding Boys Town was the purchase of Overlook Farm, a property located ten miles west of Omaha. Overlook Farm offered space for growth; it was also far enough away from neighbors who might be concerned about living too near to Father Flanagan’s orphan boys. The boys moved in on October 22, 1921. On their new farm, the boys raised some of their own food in a vegetable garden and had room for a baseball diamond, track, and football field. By March 1922, business and religious leaders and many Omaha residents had raised enough money to break ground for a new five-story brick building designed to house the classrooms, dining hall, gym, dormitory, chapel, and infirmary. By 1930, Boys Town was home to 280 boys and a new $400,000 building was underway to house the trade school, faculty offices, and gym.
Boys Town Today: Like other private childcare organizations, Boys Town has changed with the times. It is one of the largest, publicly funded nonprofit childcare agencies in the country, providing professional treatment for the behavioral, emotional and physical problems of children and families. In 2009, Boys Town served nearly 370,000 children and adults across the United States, Canada and the U.S. Territories and in several foreign countries. The Village of Boys Town in Nebraska remains the national headquarters for Boys Town. As many as 550 boys and girls of diverse ages, races, and religious and cultural backgrounds live in 70 Treatment Family Homes with their Family-Teachers. Boys Town also supports a national outreach program, providing treatment programs and services at more than a dozen locations across the country.
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