Reflection on Father Edward Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town

Author: Father Clifford Stevens

Reflection on Father Edward Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town

Clifford Stevens
Priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska and a graduate of Boys Town

Conquering Omaha: One priest's unique vision of humanity

In September of 1912, a young man of 26 stepped off a ship in New York Harbor from Hamburg, Germany. This was not his first time in New York, in fact, he had been a resident of the city six years before, as a student for the priesthood at Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers. He had relatives in New York, and as a seminarian, he was expected to visit the sick poor in the local hospitals and sanitariums.

What he had experienced there had stuck in his memory for the six years he had been away and that experience had given him a passion for the poor.

But the years since then had given him more than a passion for the poor and neglected members of society; it had sharpened his conviction on how they could be helped and had moved him to study classical works on the subject: novels, demographic studies, educational treatises, the insights and words of masters in the field, both religious and scientific. He had begun to read the novels of Charles Dickens when he was 12 years old and it was from Dickens that he first began to glimpse what it meant to be poor and homeless.

Fr Edward Flanagan, when he stepped off the ship from Hamburg onto the docks of New York, was a seasoned veteran of personal suffering and anguish. He had endured a childhood of frail health and hard work, long hours of intense study and scholastic achievement, and the crushing disappointment of a complete physical breakdown when his goal of the priesthood was barely in sight. He learned a long patience and an unrelenting endurance, holding on by naked determination when all hope seemed lost. He was able to enter into a like despair in others, and especially of the young, the untried, the outcast, the bereft, the wounded and the forgotten.

In his first months as an assistant pastor at St Patrick's Church in Omaha, he was faced with victims of a Midwest tornado that devastated the city: families without homes, destruction everywhere, the center of the city in shambles and men without means or work; visits to hospitals and to the sick and bedridden; children to be comforted and old people to be provided for; then the city filling up with an army of fathers seeking work in stockyards and packing houses, where most were turned away.

His charity and meager salary were stretched to the limit, but he became innovative. He gathered friends and family to help him. He made friendships of civic leaders and prominent citizens, business men and executives, doctors and lawyers and neighborhood societies. But this was only a beginning.

It took months for the city to reclaim the damaged neighborhoods and the loss of life. Whole blocks had been torn out of the city's structures, commercial centers had to be rebuilt and neighborhoods reclaimed. It was the first time the young priest had to face this kind of massive tragedy, this kind of loss of life, and this upheaval and dislocation of whole neighborhoods and their families.

Edward Flanagan had come to the United States as an 18 year old boy, fresh from secondary school in his native Ireland, where poverty was rampant and families often left homeless, driven out of their homes by absentee English landlords. He was born 40 years after the Great Famine of 1845, when thousands of families were made homeless and had to seek shelter in forest and woodlands, and thousands more had left the brutal conditions under which they had to live for America, Canada or Australia. Their chief comfort were their priests who set up rock altars in forests and fields where people could gather for prayer and mutual comfort. He knew what was expected of priests in Ireland and the names of those priestly heroes were legion. At one time, priests were banished from the country and, if caught, were imprisoned or killed.

But he had never expected to be thrown into like family tragedies in free America, although he had a small taste of it in rural Nebraska, in the small town of O'Neill, which was his first priestly assignment. The people he served were immigrants from his homeland, eking out an existence on the Great Plains. He had come among them with his half-scholarly air, with a bit of the seminary detachment about him. He had baptized their babies and buried their dead and married their young folk. Some were prosperous, many were poor, and the winter's bite drove some to near hunger and others to a physical wretchedness that saddened him. He had a few books not worth selling and a few dollars. Their sadness was his.

But there was more to come in Omaha after the tornado of 1913. The city had scarcely recovered from the damage and devastation of that massive tragedy, and families were still suffering from the loss of loved ones and severe economic distress.

Two years later, in the summer of 1915, the Midwest was hit by a drought. Migrant workers who followed the harvest across the country were stranded in Omaha, with no work, no money, no place to stay and no means of support. Most of them were hardworking husbands and fathers of families who followed the harvest west, their whole livelihood dependent upon this seasonal work. They drifted into the city by the hundreds and could be seen standing on street corners or sleeping in alleys, tired and hungry, with desperation in their faces and no food in their stomachs. Others had been in the city all winter waiting for the late summer harvests to begin in Kansas. They would follow the harvest west and north, returning to Omaha with wages to last them until the next year's harvest. This massive unemployment was new to the city and the city found itself with few resources to face this army of unemployed. Young Fr Flanagan watched this growing crisis, as the rectory door bell rang day and night by lonely and hungry men.

He pondered and prayed, he read his Dickens and the published works coming off the presses like John Spargo's "The Bitter Cry of Children" and Jane Addams' "Twenty Years at Hull House". His mind was searching for fresh ideas and innovative models that had worked for others. He decided to plunge into the deep with no money, no resources, little sympathy for his concerns and a few members of the newly-founded St Vincent de Paul Society to help him.

The drought drove him into the streets. The seminary detachment left him, and as September moved into October, they saw him on Thirteenth Street and near the barges on the river. As the despair of the men deepened, his sense of helplessness became overwhelming and he told his sister, Nellie, and his brother, Pat, also a priest, that his anguish was almost too much to bear.

His sadness did not lead to despair, but to action.

He had been a priest scarcely two years when he was thrown into the orbit of human suffering and found himself grappling with the problem of human misery. From that painful summer when he saw "Christ in a man", he became more than a kind-hearted and good priest that loved everyone: he became a champion and fighter for the helpless and the poor, and his love made him dream great things. Out of that dreaming and doing came "Boys Town", "the City of Little Men", and he became known as "Fr Flanagan of Boys Town".

When he started to put his vision of the streets into words, it was an echo of convictions he had formed long ago, as a boy on the fields of Ireland tending sheep and cattle. He was aware all around him of the despair and helplessness of poverty and oppression under English rule. His country had been under the heel of an oppressor for over a thousand years and its passion for freedom and independence, and for simple civility, would burst into flame in the Easter Rising of 1916, which saw the thirst for national freedom reach a feverish pitch, with the leaders of his country executed like common criminals. He had put all of this into a bundle of convictions drawn from his Irish heritage and from his wide reading of master storytellers and moral masters. He had been bred to heroism, as he explained to a friend, long before he had left Ireland and tasted freedom in a free country.

"My father would tell me many stories that were interesting for a child: stories of adventure, or of the Irish People for independence. It was from him that I learned the science of life... from the lives of saints, scholars and patriots".

With a novel of Dickens under his arm and the stirring poetry of Scott and Macauley drumming in his ears, he acquired an epic sensed that never left him. It burst into flame when he faced the terror and destruction of a tornado, fathers of families looking for work and not finding it, men deprived of their livelihood far away from home.

"I was always interested in people", he wrote of these eventful days, "and how they lived and was always interested in trying to help people live better, if they were not living well. Then, when the opportunity presented itself due to a great calamity in our city back in 1913, I immediately entered the field of social service by establishing a home for unfortunate men".

"To help people live better" — a simple explanation of the achievement of a lifetime, for the freshness and originality with which he faced the poor and homeless, like a page out of one of Dickens' novels, with characters to match. One of them, Henry Monsky, whom he met in the corridors of the Douglas County Courthouse where Monsky was trying to place Jewish homeless boys, became a fast friend from their first meeting. That friendship sparked Boys Town and a collaboration that lasted a lifetime. It was the novelty of Flanagan's thinking and the sheer humanity of his concerns that attracted Monsky, himself a humanitarian and fighter for justice in his own right.

The compassion and educational theories of Fr Edward Flanagan began to take the world by storm, even from these early days, as the concept of Boys Town began to form in his mind. He plumbed the theories and experiments that crossed his path and became a severe critic of systems and laws and solutions that were not in keeping with his high regard for human being and his deep reverence for human worth. His stirring call for compassion and genuine brotherly love was a lone voice in a society ravaged by war, by a sense of racial superiority and by institutional solutions immune to deeply human problems and intense personal suffering. What was unique was the intellectual and religious roots to his words and achievements, and the audacity with which he made the absence of God part of the problem.

There was an aura of adventure to his thinking, and he pondered the lives of the great men and women who had shaped their times with a touch of genius. His gift for making friends was renowned and the walls of his office were covered with photos and mementos of his wide circle of friends. Framed pictures of all sizes were hung casually and carelessly in an amazing abundance all over the walls. Some were of Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig standing with Fr Flanagan. Some were of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford with a greeting scrawled across the shiny paper. Some were cartoons or news clippings, One showed Skippy kicking the dust and saying: "It's a time like this that a fella needs a heart-to-heart talk with Fr Flanagan". There was a whole series of Joe Palooka comic strips, and in a special place of prominence on one of the walls, autographed photos of Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and Bobs Watson, stars of the movie, "Boys Town". He was proud of these many friendships, and contrary to many religious persons impression of Hollywood, when he returned from a visit there, he praised the hard work and dedication of those in the movie industry.

He found very early that he was matching wits with principled and unprincipled occupiers of power judges, state officials, governors, juvenile authorities, many merely bureaucratic managers or occupants of office shaped by political pressures and the demands of the electorate. What he brought to the social problems he faced, especially those of the juvenile justice system, was a sense of realism that stripped the problem to its naked reality, often to the astonishment of those who listened. It was not merely the sincerity of the man's motives that won the day, but the breadth of his knowledge and the appeal to a wealth of concrete facts.

There was something Lincolnesque about his debating skills, as he piled brutal fact upon brutal fact, drawing conclusions from a mass of data that could not be denied, leaving his hearers to draw their own inescapable conclusions.

As soon as he entered it, he realized that the youth problem was a high stakes game, with lives at risk and the future of thousands of youth in the balance. His words came sharp and decisive, and he knew the critical importance of his public forum and the power of words. He could write well and with rare insight and literary grace, as his account of his first visit to Hollywood, "I Meet Myself" graphically shows. There is a lucidity and clarity of meaning in his well-turned phrases and in the descriptive analysis of his work. He was a master of his craft and relished a piece of well-fashioned prose.

The fate and suffering of the poor and disadvantaged, from his experience as a young seminarian in the tuberculosis wards and city hospitals of New York city, was central to Fr Flanagan's social thinking, and the fate of such people was always on his mind. He met them, in literary form in the writings of Charles Dickens, and briefly in person in the poorer sections of Sligo, in Ireland, in his secondary school days, as he wandered the city and saw the poor in hovels and ragged boys in the streets. More than once, he agonized over his inability to help them.

When he began his work for boys, it was the insensitivity of juvenile authorities and their inability to see the harm that was done by poverty, homelessness and neglect, that stirred him into action, then fired his mind as he put pen to paper. He was grateful for Dickens' description of poverty in England, and he was able to conjure up images of the poor and destitute that silenced his critics, as he would bite into their faces, not lifeless statistics, but human beings in dire need.

But it all began on Easter morning in 1913, when a tornado struck the city of Omaha, with families and whole neighborhoods in extreme distress. He was out with his friend, the mortician, Leo Hoffman, with a wagon, picking up bodies of the dead and making arrangements for their decent burial. He had been a priest for less than a year, but there was something bottled inside of him that came to the surface and spurred him into action. From that day, the city of Omaha became not only his parish and his arena of action, it became a center for a social experiment that would almost identify the city. Boys Town was still in the future, but the seeds were laid in the genius and compassion of this man who "saw Christ in a man", and turned the whole world upside-down to carry on his own unique vision of humanity.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 August 2009, page 6

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069