He had a dream that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education and a trade, writes GEMMA GRANT
“There’s no such thing as a bad boy,” states Spencer Tracey in his academy winning role as Fr. Flanagan in the 1938 movie Boys’ Town. The film, based on the real life of Fr Flanagan, featured a young Mickey Rooney, playing the role of the cocky Boys’ Town kid. The movie raised awareness of the homeless children of America and brought to greater prominence the sterling work of Irish born priest, Fr. Flanagan.
Fr. Flanagan, unlike those he cared for, came from a stable background, the eighth of eleven children born to John and Nora Flanagan. On his birth in 1886 in the village of Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, Edward was considered delicate, possibly premature.
Fearing he would not survive, his grandfather Patrick, wrapped him in a blanket, nursing him for hours in front of the fire. Edward survived his childhood, but struggled with bad health throughout his life.
In a letter to a friend, he light-heartily described himself as the delicate, little shepherd boy, good for nothing only caring for the sheep. Great training for the day when he would care for the homeless flock of America.
His religious upbringing of family rosaries and honest, hard work formed the character of the young boy. His father’s stories of the Irish struggle for independence and heroic tales of patriots and Saints found willing ears. It was from St. Benedict, that Fr. Flanagan took his rule of life; ‘pray and work’.
In 1904, along with his sister Nellie, he arrived in New York and began his studies for the priesthood. However, double pneumonia halted his studies for a year. To recuperate, he made his way to Omaha, to stay with his brother, Fr. Patrick. Nellie, housekeeper to Fr. Patrick, nursed her younger brother back to health. Due to reoccurring health problems, it would be eight years, before he was ordained to the priesthood in 1912, in Austria.
One of his first assignments on returning to America, led him down a path of social reformer and father to the homeless. On Easter Sunday, 1913, Omaha suffered a devastating tornado that destroyed one third of the city and left 155 people dead with hundreds more homeless.