Today, 12 December, marks the centenary of the foundation of the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska, USA, by Roscommon native Father Edward J. Flanagan. Writing in today’s Irish Times newspaper, Bishop Kevin Doran said that Father Flanagan ‘was motivated by a firm belief in the goodness of every person’.
In his article, Bishop Doran said, ‘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.’
He continued, ‘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.’
Bishop Doran went on to say, ‘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.’
‘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.”’
Bishop Doran concluded, ‘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.
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.’
Bishop Kevin Doran’s full Rite and Reason article from today’s Irish Times can be found here.
Earlier today, Bishop Kevin Doran joined the staff and students at Summerhill College where Father Flanagan was a student, in a ceremony to mark the centenary. Earlier this year, the Diocese of Elphin unveiled a hand-crafted wooden sculpture at the Father Flanagan Memorial Garden in Ballymoe to honour the centenary of the foundation of Boys Town.
Father Edward J. Flanagan was born in 1886 in Ballymoe, Leabeg, Roscommon. After secondary education at Summerhill College in Sligo, he emigrated with his sister to America in 1904 where he joined the Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York.
Following ordination in 1912, Father Flanagan was appointed as assistant pastor to the Irish community at Saint Patrick’s Church in O’Neill, Nebraska. On 12 December 1917, Father Flanagan opened his first ‘home for boys’ welcoming five boys between the ages of eight and ten. By Christmas 1918 there were more than one hundred boys in the home. In May 1921, Father Flanagan received the deed to Overlook Farm, which later became known as Boys Town.
Father Flanagan’s mission work took him to thirty-one states and to twelve countries in Asia and in Europe. More than 6,000 young people were under his direct care during his lifetime. The Boys Town organisation is continues to be active throughout America and serves more than two million people each year.
For more information on the life and work of Father Flanagan see www.elphindiocese.ie.
Photograph of Father Flanagan from Boys Town organisation.