Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan (13 July 1886 – 15 May 1948) was an Irish-born priest of the Catholic Church (Roman Rite) 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.
Flanagan was born in the townland of Leabeg, County Roscommon, near the village of Ballymoe, County Galway, Ireland. His parents were John (a herdsman) and Honoria Flanagan.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. Father 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 Father Flanagan’s experiment. Because the downtown facilities were inadequate, Flanagan established Boys Town, ten miles west of Omaha, in 1921. Under Father 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”
A 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy, Boys Town, was based on the life of Father 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 Father 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.”
Some scenes from the movie were filmed at Boys Town, and Father Flanagan reviewed the script prior to the filming. A sequel also starring Tracy, Men of Boys Town, was released in 1941.
Father Flanagan himself appeared in a separate 1938 short MGM Miniatures film, The City of Little Men, promoting Boys Town and giving a tour of its facilities.
The actor Stephen McNally played Flanagan in a 1957 episode of the ABC religion anthology series, Crossroads.
Father 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, Father Flanagan traveled to the Republic of Ireland in 1946, where he was appalled by the children’s institutions there, calling them “a national disgrace”; his observations raised negative comments against him in the Irish press and the Oireachtas, and he was forced to leave the country. He made a similar trip to Japan and Korea in 1947 to study child welfare problems, 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.
In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 4¢ Great Americans series postage stamp honoring him. Father Flanagan is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
On February 25, 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska opened the canonization process of Father Flanagan. At a March 17, 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.