Father Edward J. Flanagan

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Edward J. Flanagan

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For other people named Edward Flanagan, see Edward Flanagan (disambiguation).

Servant of God
Edward Joseph Flanagan
Flanagan in 1938
Ordination26 July 1912
Personal details
BornEdward Joseph Flanagan
13 July 1886
Leabeg, County Roscommon
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died15 May 1948 (aged 61)
Berlin, Germany
BuriedDowd Memorial Chapel
Immaculate Conception Parish
Boys Town, Nebraska, US
OccupationFounder of Boys Town
EducationBachelor of Arts (1906)
Master of Arts (1908)
Alma materMount St. Mary’s University
Emmitsburg, Maryland, US
Ordination history of
Edward J. Flanagan

Edward Joseph Flanagan (13 July 1886 – 15 May 1948) was an Irish-born priest of the Catholic Church in the United States, who served for decades in Nebraska. After serving as a parish priest in the Catholic Diocese of Omaha, he founded the orphanage and educational complex known as Boys Town, located west of the city in what is now Boys TownDouglas County, Nebraska. In the 21st century, the complex also serves as a center for troubled youth.

Flanagan’s work became widely known, especially after he was played by Spencer Tracy in the movie Boys Town (1938). In the post-World War II era, Flanagan was invited by General Douglas MacArthur to visit Japan and Korea, and later Austria and Germany, to give him advice about improving conditions for children in the occupied countries.

In 2012 the Catholic Diocese of Omaha initiated the process for canonization of Fr. Flanagan. That year he was declared a “Servant of God”. Documentation of the cause was sent to the Vatican in 2015.

Early years[edit]

Flanagan was born in the townland of Leabeg, County Roscommon, near the village of BallymoeCounty Galway, Ireland.[1] His parents were John (a herdsman) and Honoria Flanagan.[2] He attended Summerhill CollegeSligo, Ireland.

In 1904, he emigrated to the United States with his sister Nellie. He attended Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where in 1906 he received a Bachelor of Arts degree. Flanagan entered St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York. Having contracted double pneumonia, Flanagan was forced to take a year off to recover, and stayed with his brother, Father Patrick Flanagan, in Omaha, Nebraska, where Nellie was both housekeeper and nurse.[3]

He then continued his studies in Rome, living at the Capranica while taking classes at Gregorian University. He returned home to Omaha due to his health in the winter of 1908 and took an accounting job at Cudahy Packing Company. Flanagan returned to Europe the following autumn, entering the Royal Imperial Leopold Francis University in Innsbruck, Austria, where he was ordained a priest in 1912.[4]

He returned to the US, where his first assignment was as assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in O’Neill, Nebraska. He was then transferred to St. Patrick’s Church in Omaha and was present during the Tornado outbreak sequence of March 1913 responding to the dead and injured. In 1916, Flanagan established a homeless shelter for transient workers.[3] He became a US citizen in 1919.

Middle years and Boys Town[edit]

Flanagan was moved by the plight of youth. In 1917, he founded a home for homeless boys in Omaha. Bishop Jeremiah James Harty of the Diocese of Omaha had misgivings, but endorsed Flanagan’s experiment of housing and education. Because the downtown facilities were inadequate, Flanagan established Boys Town, ten miles west of Omaha, in 1921. Under 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. Boys between the ages of 10 and 16 could receive an education here and learn a trade. Flanagan did not believe in the reform school model, which he thought too punitive, and stated, “there’s no such thing as a bad boy”.[5]

Flanagan’s work became widely known, especially after the 1938 release of an MGM film about his life, Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy as Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as one of the boys. Flanagan was allowed to review the script before filming, some of which took place at the complex. Tracy won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance; he talked about Flanagan at his acceptance speech, saying “If you have seen him through me, then I thank you.”[6] An Oscar statuette, dedicated to Flanagan by Tracy, was also given to Boys Town.[6]

Later years[edit]

Flanagan served on several committees and boards dealing with the welfare of children. He also published articles on child welfare. Internationally known by the 1940s, in 1946 Flanagan traveled to the Republic of Ireland, where he was appalled by conditions in the children’s institutions. He described them as “a national disgrace”. When his observations were published after returning to Omaha, Irish print media attacked him, as did the Oireachtas.[7][3]

General MacArthur, who was leading the Allied occupation of Japan, invited Fr Flanagan to Japan and Korea in 1947 to advise on child welfare. He also invited him to review conditions the next year in occupied territory in Austria and Germany, where Flanagan traveled in 1948.

While in Germany, Flanagan died on 15 May 1948 of a heart attack. His body was returned to the United States. He is interred at Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Boys Town, Nebraska.[citation needed]

Canonization process opened in 2012[edit]

On 25 February 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha opened the canonization process for Flanagan. At a 17 March 2012 prayer service at Boys Town’s Immaculate Conception Church, he was given the title, “Servant of God”.

This is the first of four titles bestowed in the process of canonization as a Catholic saint, if that is approved. The local investigation was completed in June 2015, including documentation of miracles, and the results forwarded to the Vatican.[8]

Legacy and awards[edit]

Fr. Edward J. Flanagan statue, Ballymoe, Co Galway

Representation in other media[edit]

  • Spencer Tracy starred in Boys Town (1938), loosely inspired by the life and work of Fr. Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney starred as one of the boys. After Tracy won an Oscar for his performance, MGM arranged for another statuette to be inscribed and gave it to Flanagan at Boys Town. It read: “To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy.”[6]
  • The sequel Men of Boys Town (1941), also starred Tracy.[6]


  1. ^ “Mercy! Mercy”Time. 7 December 1931. Archived from the original on 15 December 2008. Retrieved 21 June 2007. He was Father Edward J. Flanagan. Father Flanagan was born in Roscommon, Ireland, 45 years ago.
  2. ^ “Roscommon Census, 1901”. leitrim-roscommon.com.
  3. Jump up to:a b c “Biography : Father Flanagan League”fatherflanagan.org.
  4. ^ “Father Edward J. Flanagan”Boys Town.
  5. ^ “History Ireland”. 13 February 2013.
  6. Jump up to:a b c d Clooney, Nick (2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. pp. 212–213ISBN 0743410432.
  7. ^ “On this day: Fr. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boy’s Town, was born in Roscommon”IrishCentral.com. 13 July 2021.
  8. ^ “Sainthood effort: Omaha Archdiocese completes investigation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan”. Omaha.com.

External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Edward J. Flanagan.

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