Edward Joseph Flanagan, Irish-born priest of the Catholic Church in the United States, dies in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948. He founds the orphanage known as Boys Town located in Boys Town, Douglas County, Nebraska, which now also serves as a center for troubled youth.
Flanagan is born to John and Honoria Flanagan in the townland of Leabeg, County Roscommon, near the village of Ballymoe, County Galway, on July 13, 1886. He attends Summerhill College, Sligo.
In 1904, Flanagan emigrates to the United States and becomes a US citizen in 1919. He attends Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he receives a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1906 and a Master of Arts degree in 1908. He studies at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York. He continues his studies in Italy and at the University of Innsbruck in Austria where he is ordained a priest on July 26, 1912. His first parish is in O’Neill, Nebraska, where from 1912 he serves as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. He then moves to Omaha, Nebraska, to serve as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Church and later at St. Philomena’s Church.
In 1917, Flanagan founds a home for homeless boys in Omaha. Bishop Jeremiah James Harty of the Diocese of Omaha has misgivings, but endorses Flanagan’s experiment. Because the downtown facilities are inadequate, he establishes Boys Town, ten miles west of Omaha in 1921. Under his direction, Boys Town grows 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 can receive an education and learn a trade.
Boys Town, a 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy based on Flanagan’s life, wins Tracy an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. Mickey Rooney also stars as one of the residents. Tracy spends his entire Oscar acceptance speech talking about Flanagan. Without confirming it with Tracy, an overzealous MGM publicity representative announces incorrectly that Tracy is donating his Oscar to Flanagan. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hastily strikes another inscription so Tracy keeps his statuette and Boys Town gets one as well. A sequel also starring Tracy and Rooney, Men of Boys Town, is released in 1941.
Flanagan himself appears in a separate 1938 MGM short, The City of Little Men, promoting Boys Town and giving a tour of its facilities. The actor Stephen McNally plays Flanagan in a 1957 episode of the ABC religion anthology series, Crossroads.
Flanagan receives many awards for his work with the delinquent and homeless boys. Pope Pius XI names him a Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor in 1937. He serves on several committees and boards dealing with the welfare of children and is the author of articles on child welfare. Internationally known, he travels to the Republic of Ireland in 1946, where he is appalled by the children’s institutions there, calling them “a national disgrace.” When his observations are published after returning to Omaha, instead of improving the horrid conditions, vicious attacks are leveled against him in the Irish print media and the Oireachtas. He is invited by General Douglas MacArthur to Japan and Korea in 1947 to advise on child welfare, as well as to Austria and Germany in 1948. While in Germany, he dies of a heart attack on May 15, 1948. He is interred at Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Boys Town, Nebraska.
In 1986, the United States Postal Service issues a 4¢ Great Americans series postage stamp honoring Flanagan. He is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
On February 25, 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska opens the canonization process of Flanagan. At a March 17, 2012 prayer service at Boys Town’s Immaculate Conception Church, he is given the title “Servant of God,” the first of three titles bestowed before canonization as a Catholic saint. The investigation is completed in June 2015 and the results forwarded to the Vatican. If the Vatican approves the local findings, Flanagan will be declared venerable. The next steps will be beatification and canonization.
There is a portrait statue dedicated to Fr. Edward J. Flanagan in Ballymoe, County Galway.