Edward J. Flanagan

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Edward Joseph Flanagan

Boys Town founder Edward J. Flanagan.jpg
Ordination26 July 1912
Personal details
Birth nameEdward Joseph Flanagan
Born(1886-07-13)13 July 1886
Leabeg, County Roscommon
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died15 May 1948(1948-05-15) (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
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Title as SaintServant of God
Ordination history of
Edward J. Flanagan
Diaconal ordination
Date25 July 1912
PlaceUniversity of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria-Hungary
Priestly ordination
Date26 July 1912
PlaceUniversity of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria-Hungary

Edward Joseph Flanagan (13 July 1886 – 15 May 1948) was an Irish-born priest of the Catholic Church in the United States. He founded the orphanage known as Boys Town located in Boys Town, Douglas County, Nebraska, which now also serves as a center for troubled youth.

Early years[edit]

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

In 1904, he emigrated to the United States and became a US 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. 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 was in O'Neill, Nebraska, where from 1912 he served as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church. He then moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to serve as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Church and later at St. Philomena's Church.

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. 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 where boys between the ages of 10 and 16 could receive an education and learn a trade. Flanagan did not believe in the reform school model, and stated, "there's no such thing as a bad boy".[3]


A 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy, Boys Town, was based on the life of Flanagan, and Tracy won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. Mickey Rooney also starred as one of the residents. Spencer Tracy spent his entire Oscar acceptance speech talking about Flanagan. "If you have seen him through me, then I thank you." An overzealous MGM publicity representative announced that Tracy was donating his Oscar to Flanagan without confirming it with Tracy. Tracy's response was: "I earned the...thing. I want it." The Academy hastily struck another inscription, Tracy kept his statuette, and Boys Town got one, too. It read: "To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy."[4]

Some scenes from the movie were filmed at Boys Town, and Flanagan reviewed the script prior to the filming. A sequel also starring Tracy, Men of Boys Town, was released in 1941.

Flanagan himself appeared in a separate 1938 MGM short, The City of Little Men, promoting Boys Town and giving a tour of its facilities.[5]

The actor Stephen McNally played Flanagan in a 1957 episode of the ABC religion anthology series, Crossroads.[6]

Flanagan received many awards for his work with the delinquent and homeless boys. Pope Pius XI named him a Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor in 1937. He served on several committees and boards dealing with the welfare of children and was the author of articles on child welfare. Internationally known, Flanagan traveled to the Republic of Ireland in 1946, where he was appalled by the children's institutions there, calling them "a national disgrace". When his observations were published after returning to Omaha, instead of improving the horrid conditions, vicious attacks were leveled against him in the Irish print media, and the Oireachtas. He was invited by General 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 died on 15 May 1948 of a heart attack. He is interred at Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Boys Town, Nebraska.


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

In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 4¢ Great Americans series postage stamp honoring him. Flanagan is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.

On 25 February 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska opened the canonization process of Flanagan. At a 17 March 2012 prayer service at Boys Town's Immaculate Conception Church, he was given the title, "Servant of God", the first of three titles bestowed before canonization as a Catholic saint. The investigation was completed in June 2015, and the results forwarded to the Vatican. If the Vatican approves the local findings, Flanagan would be declared venerable. The next steps would be beatification and canonization.[7]

There is a portrait statue dedicated to Fr. Edward J. Flanagan in Ballymoe in County Galway.


  1. ^ "Mercy! Mercy". Time. 7 December 1931. 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. ^ "History Ireland". History Ireland.
  4. ^ Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. pp. 212–213. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2.
  5. ^ The City of Little Men, TCM Extras (formerly One Reel Wonders), 10 May 2013.
  6. ^ "Stephen McNally". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  7. ^ "Sainthood effort: Omaha Archdiocese completes investigation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan". Omaha.com.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Edward J. Flanagan at Wikimedia Commons