Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886 – 1948): Catholic Priest and Founder of Boys Town, Omaha, NE
His Youth: Edward Flanagan was born in County Roscommon, Ireland on July 13, 1886. 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 that 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.”
His Career: Edward Flanagan emigrated to the USA in 1904, and became a U.S. citizen in 1919. He attended Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where in 1906 he received a bachelor of arts degree and a master of arts degree in 1908. Father Flanagan studied at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York. He continued his studies in Italy and at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, where he was ordained a priest in 1912. His first parish assignment was Saint Patrick’s in O’Neill, Nebraska, after which he was appointed Assistant Pastor to Saint Patrick’s Parish, Omaha in March 1913, a Diocese administered by Bishop Harty.
In Omaha, Father Flanagan started the Workingmen’s Hotel, which was a shelter for penniless men. After three years of this work, he asked the Bishop if he could change his ministry and devote his work to the youth of the area, and help rehabilitate troubled young boys. He started the Home for Homeless Boys in a run-down Victorian mansion in downtown Omaha located at 106 North 25th street. Once this home was started, Bishop Harty relieved Father Flanagan of his regular pastoral duties and allowed two nuns to assist him in managing the Home for Homeless Boys.
Many of the boys were sent to the Home by a court order, or other citizens, and some boys just came in off the streets. To get to school, the boys rode in a wagon pulled by a horse, but only after Father Flanagan guaranteed the school administrator that the conduct of the boys would be appropriate. Father Flanagan developed an understanding for the boys and young men who were orphaned by society. He realized that children who were neglected often turned to crime.
In 1921, the Boys’ Home moved to Overlook Farm, just ten miles outside Omaha. In a short time, 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 and Boys Town became internationally known with the help of the 1938 movie, “Boys Town” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Father Flanagan became an acknowledged expert in the field of child care, and toured the United States discussing his views on juvenile delinquency. The federal government often called on Father Flanagan to help children both nationally and internationally. After World War II, President Truman asked him to travel to Asia and Europe to attend discussions about children left orphaned and displaced by the war. During a tour of Europe, he fell ill and died of a heart attack in Berlin, Germany, on May 15, 1948.
For more information about Fr. Flanagan or the history and programs of Boys Town, visit:
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886 – 1948): Catholic priest and founder of Boys Town, Omaha, NE. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/flanagan-father-edward-j/