By Edward T. O’Donnell
Eighty-four years ago this week, on Dec. 12, 1917, Fr. Edward Flanagan took six homeless and neglected boys into his care. All he had to offer was shelter in an old drafty house and some food. Still, it was no ordinary act of Christian kindness, for it represented the beginning of an astonishing outreach program the world would one day know as Boys Town.
Fr. Flanagan was born in 1886 in County Roscommon and first traveled to the United States to earn an undergraduate degree. He was ordained in Austria in 1912 and returned to the U.S. to serve as assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Omaha.
But Flanagan was not content to work as a mere parish priest. Like most bustling industrial cities. Omaha had its share of poor and homeless workers. Being at the crossroads of several major railroads also drew countless tramps — homeless men and women riding the rails from town to town. Moved by the sight of them roaming the streets begging and stealing, Flanagan decided to open the Workingmen’s Hotel to provide cheap lodging and meals to the city’s poorest. It didn’t solve the homeless problem, but it helped put a dent in it.
Flanagan’s work among the poor, drunks, and criminals at the hotel prompted him to consider what had driven these men to such dreadful lives. It occurred to him that they all seemed to have one thing in common: a miserable childhood marked by abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Perhaps, he thought, if the homeless and orphaned boy had a place — a sanctuary — where he could live in peace and gain an education, he might stand a chance to avoid a life of misery, prison, and early death.
Armed with this idea, Fr. Flanagan swung into action in late 1917. The local archbishop gave him his blessing, but Flanagan would have to find his own source of funding. Quickly he found and rented — with no idea where he’d get the first month’s rent — an old, rundown mansion. The first residents of Fr. Flanagan’s Boys Home, as it was originally called, were a half dozen boys, local children from orphanages and broken homes.
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When he wasn’t working to transform the drafty house into a clean and comfortable facility, Flanagan canvassed the city for donations. Impressed with his earlier work in establishing the Workingmen’s Hotel, the city’s residents opened their wallets. Likewise impressed with his energetic 31-year-old priest, the archbishop released Flanagan from his duties at St. Patrick’s. He also sent him some badly needed help — two nuns and a novice from the Sisters of Notre Dame. Money, however, was still Flanagan’s responsibility.
It wasn’t long before the home was filled with young boys. Some were sent by local judges or the police. Others were dropped by desperate single mothers. A good many just walked in by themselves from who knows where. By the end of January 1918, 50 boys were under Flanagan’s care.
At first, the primary mission of the home was to provide shelter and food to desperate boys. But Flanagan knew that without an education his charges would stand little chance of leading productive, happy lives. When local public schools balked at accepting his boys, many of whom had been expelled, he personally persuaded the principals to relent. He would take full responsibility for them, he promised, and guarantee their good behavior. It worked.
And so it went. By the early summer Flanagan had found a much larger building with ample grounds and the number of boys topped 100. Little by little the home added programs for the positive development of the boys. With the assistance of volunteers, the home soon offered sports and music. By midsummer they established a farm where the boys worked growing vegetables and raising chickens.
The results? By summer’s end not one boy of the 100 at the home had returned to the streets or had a run-in with the law. Success drew more volunteers, donations, and, of course, boys. By now the home’s reputation had spread far beyond Omaha. Four years after its founding, the home had 1,300 boys from 17 states and more were on the way.
Pleased with his success, Fr. Flanagan realized that with it came a major challenge. Despite the pride many residents of Omaha felt over their famous priest and his home for troubled boys, many also grew leery as the institution grew. Did the city really want to be a magnet, some asked, for the nation’s juvenile delinquents? Feeling pressure from locals and hoping to find a still larger facility, Flanagan began looking for a new site. Eventually he found it in Overlook Farm, 160 acres of quality land about 10 miles outside of Omaha.
At first the owner was reluctant to sell, but Flanagan brought him around with a heartfelt plea on behalf of the boys and his mission. So moved was the owner that he let Flanagan pay off the farm in installments. “Your greatest asset,” he told the charismatic priest, “is your faith.”
They moved to the farm in October 1921 and immediately launched a door-to-door fund-raising campaign in Omaha for a new building. It netted more than $200,000 and by March 1922 construction began on a new five-story main building. That same year Fr. Flanagan’s “Home” was renamed Boys Town. It was incorporated as an independent town in 1936.
The Hibernian connection to Boys Town extended beyond Fr. Flanagan in 1938 when Spencer Tracy starred in the 1938 movie Boys Town. The film was an instant hit and earned Tracy an Academy Award, which he subsequently donated to Boys Town. More important, it drew national attention — and donations — to the struggling institution.
By the 1940s, Fr. Flanagan was regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the care and development of disadvantaged youth. He traveled the country (and after World War II, the world) to offer advice to governments and private foundations. He also helped establish dozens of homes modeled on Boys Town. It was on one of these trips, in 1948, a journey to war-ravaged Germany, that Fr. Flanagan died of a heart attack.
Boys Town lives on in 2001, though much has changed since 1917. In 1979, the first girls were admitted and in 2001 the current and former students voted to change the institution’s name to Boys and Girls Town. The name may have changed and so too may have the many programs and services offered by the institution, but its mission of providing a second chance to disadvantaged youth remains the same as in 1917. Were he alive today, Fr. Flanagan would no doubt approve.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 13, 1862: The Irish Brigade suffers horrendous casualties in its heroic assaults against Confederate lines in the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Dec. 14, 1955: Ireland becomes member of the UN.
Dec. 18, 1980: The hunger strikes that claimed the lives of 10 IRA prisoners are called off after prisoners receive promises that they will be treated as political prisoners.
Dec. 13, 1890: Playwright Marc Connelly is born in McKeesport, Pa.
Dec. 15, 1932: Novelist Edna O’Brien is born in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare.
Dec. 16, 1951: Baseball pitcher and 1979 Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan is born in Manchester, N.H.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.