Edward Flanagan’s Boys Town a template for voluntary service
Irish priest’s work with homeless juveniles in US embodies practical holiness
Statue of Fr Edward Flanagan donated by the Boys Town National Alumni Association Nebraska USA. It stands in the grounds of the Fr Edward Flanaghan Memorial Centre in Ballymoe in Co Galway. Photograph: David Sleator
We often talk about the negative effects of emigration on the life of rural communities. There is another side to the story, however. Our emigrants have made a remarkable contribution to the economic, political and cultural life of other countries. They remain our greatest export.
Edward Flanagan was the eighth of 11 children born to John and Nora Flanagan, at Leabeg, Ballymoe, on the Roscommon-Galway border. Having completed his secondary education at Summerhill College, Sligo, he emigrated with his sister to join their brother in Omaha, Nebraska.
He was ordained a priest in 1912 at a time when machines were beginning to replace people. Those who had work were frequently exploited for low wages. The tornado which, in the early months of Edward’s priesthood, wrought havoc on the city of Omaha, made matters worse.
Some few years previously, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII had written his encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, in which he called for the state to exercise its responsibility in vindicating the rights of workers.
It was the beginning of what we now call “Catholic Social Teaching”. All of this served as a backdrop to the formation and early ministry of Edward Flanagan. It might explain why he saw it as part of his responsibility as a priest to engage himself actively in the care of the homeless – and subsequently of homeless children.
Orphanage for boys
The practical result was the foundation of Boys Town – an orphanage for boys that took a new approach to juvenile care – just 100 years ago today. It has grown into a national organisation providing help to children, families and communities.
Edward Flanagan was motivated by a firm belief in the goodness of every person. He argued that “there are delinquent environments but never delinquent boys”.
Some might see this as naive, but for Fr Flanagan, it was an expression of his belief that every person is created in the image of God. He understood that young people have to be challenged, but he also believed the problems caused by juvenile delinquency cannot always be laid entirely at the feet of young people themselves.
Modern society, notwithstanding its elaborate penal system, has not solved the problem of juvenile delinquency. Young people continue to be sucked into violent gangland criminality. Prisons here in Ireland, as in the United States, tend to be occupied primarily by young men coming from difficult backgrounds.
They are by no means the only ones who commit crime, but society tends to be less tolerant of crime when it is committed by the poor, the migrant or those who are less well educated.
Edward Flanagan believed that the most effective tool for forming young minds and hearts was the power of love. “I do not believe,” he says, “that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”
Love not duty
While he recognised that “every boy should pray in his own way”, he insisted that “every child should have the opportunity of religious training and development”. He saw morality as an expression of love rather than mere duty.
Historically, saints are people who live lives of prayer and care. As we mark the centenary of Boys Town, the church is currently seriously exploring the possibility of proclaiming Edward Flanagan a saint. This is because he is seen to have the potential to inspire others by his example of practical holiness.
One might ask in what way Fr Flanagan would be a prophetic witness in our society today. I believe that he might challenge us to renew our commitment to voluntary service and to question a society in which nothing can happen without state funding or state control.
He might inspire us to question a society which builds office blocks while children live in emergency accommodation, or on the streets, or spend years in direct provision centres, with no opportunity to live a normal family life.
His vision might encourage us to work towards a society in which no person, born or unborn, sick or healthy is regarded as disposable for any reason. Finally, the fact that his contribution to the welfare of children was made as a Catholic and as a priest is a reminder that the active engagement in society of people of faith is not only valid but essential.