Pioneer magazine

Boys Town

Edward Flanagan: The Irish Priest who Saved Thousands of Homeless Children

It is a sad fact of history that an Irish youth who emigrated to the United States and was ordained there, then went on to develop an ideal home for thousand of displaced American children, while Irish children were suffering hardship and abuse in institutional care in Ireland. That priest was Fr Edward Flanagan and the home he set up became known as ‘Boys’ Town’, writes Patrick P Rowan

Edward Flanagan, the son of a farmer, was born at Leabeg, near Ballymoe in the County of Roscommon in 1886. When he was eighteen, he decided to leave Ireland and go to the United States. He had already decided that he wanted to become a priest, so he enrolled in a seminary in New York. Ill-health slowed his progress in the seminary but, under the sponsorship of the Bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, he was eventually ordained in 1912 after completing his studies in Austria.

The young priest was sent to work in a poor parish in Omaha. Soon, he became very conscious of the many layabouts and unemployed men in his parish and wondered how he could get them into gainful employment. In 1916, he established a Workingman’s Hotel for some of these men to live in while they were looking for work. He soon realised that there was little prospect of this venture being successful. Most of these men were so set in their ways that they were unable to live a purposeful, productive life, so he decided it was essential to try to train individuals from an earlier age. He concluded that if he were to prevent others ending up as unemployable adults he would have to try training them at a younger age to realise their potential. Little did he realise that his thoughts would lead to the huge benefits that would come to fruition in Boys’ Town.

Fr Flanagan was not afraid to take risks. With borrowed money he rented a house in Omaha and installed five boys in it. These boys had been before the courts and, at the priest’s request, had been entrusted to him. As the months passed the courts were impressed with the progress of these boys so that they were happy to pass on other deprived boys to him. Soon, he had more boys than his rented house could accommodate, so he decided to look for larger premises. By this time, people had begun to realize that Fr Flanagan was a man with a mission who was successful in managing these boys and saving them from an aimless existence and possibly a life of crime, so, donations were being given to him in increasing amounts. With this money he bought a farm ten miles outside Omaha. It was only later that he named it Boys’ Town.

Fr Flanagan’s philosophy permeated the Town which was to be ‘home’ for every boy admitted
there. Any boy who sought admission was accepted, irrespective of creed or colour. ‘They are all God’s children’, he was fond of saying. Boys flocked to the establishment. Each boy was helped develop self respect through love, compassion and education and was prepared for the future by being taught a trade. Flanagan kept a strict watch on his staff and anyone who was harsh with the boys was given short shrift.

In 1938, a semi-fictional account of Fr Flanagan and Boys’ Town was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The film was received with great acclaim and made the priest very well known, increasing further donations to his work. Tracy’s performance as Fr Flanagan won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Tracy is reputed to have presented the award to the priest. In 1979, girls were admitted to the Town and the name was subsequently changed in 2000 to Girls’ and Boys’ Town. The original farm has had to be extended to accommodate the increasing numbers presenting themselves for admission, so that it now covers almost a thousand acres. Fr Flanagan was very particular about respecting the beliefs of each individual. Separate Catholic and Protestant churches were built. There are several schools and various other arrangement for training the boys and girls for life in the outer world. Later, a National Research Hospital was established which deals with hearing and communication disorders in childhood.

Fr Flanagan’s success in providing a ‘home’ for children was increasingly recognised. In 1947, the United States government asked him to go to Korea to advise on the possibility of setting up similar homes there for orphaned children. The following year he was asked to travel to Germany to report on conditions for children in that country. While in Germany, he suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately, he did not survive. Fr Flanagan has been succeeded by several other priests. They have continued his work and have improved and expanded the Town. As an indication of how successful Boys’ Town had become, fourteen other ‘Towns’ have now been established in other parts of the United States.