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The Day Father Flanagan Died

May 15th, 2015     By Tom Lynch, Director of Community Programs and the Boys Town Hall of History

Boys Town History, Father Flanagan


It was a story made famous by Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. During the winter of 1917, Father Edward J. Flanagan borrowed $90 from a friend and turned an Omaha boardinghouse into a residence for homeless and neglected boys.

The young Irish immigrant priest stuck to his then radical idea that all boys were welcome regardless of race or religion. By the late 1940s, after three decades of successfully working to change the lives of children society had labeled as hopeless (and 10 years after “Boys Town” won Tracy an Oscar), Father Flanagan had become the undisputed authority on youth issues, not just in America, but worldwide.


As the nations of Europe and Asia began to rebuild following the devastation of World War II, they were faced with large numbers of homeless and neglected children. The American government turned to Father Flanagan and requested he tour Asia and report on the conditions of the children and how they could be helped.

In 1947, Father Flanagan traveled throughout Japan, Korea and the Philippines for two months, meeting with hundreds of government officials, visiting children’s homes and evaluating conditions. On July 11, he presented his report, “Children of Defeat,” to President Harry Truman at a White House meeting, and was soon asked to begin a similar tour of Europe.

Father Flanagan accepted the assignment even though he was still exhausted from his trip to Asia. He commented to a few close companions that he believed if he went on this new mission, he would not live to see his beloved Boys Town again. On March 5, 1948, he sailed from New York aboard the Queen Mary to Southampton, England, and then flew to Austria.

His travels in Europe were made up of long days, with meetings lasting late into the evening. The strain showed when Father Flanagan collapsed after saying Easter Mass in Vienna, but he refused to cut back on his schedule.
Before retiring for the night on May 14th in Berlin, Father Flanagan discussed with a colleague the thoughts he planned to share the following morning with General Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of Germany.

During the night, Father Flanagan began to complain of chest pains and was rushed to the 279th Station Military Hospital, where he passed away at 2 a.m., after receiving the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

The news was flashed around the world; residents of Boys Town heard of their leader’s death from a radio bulletin.
The boys of the home immediately gathered in the chapel to pray for Father Flanagan. President Truman sent the message: “He has left a living monument in the countless boys who are today honest men and upright citizens because of his benign influence in the inherent goodness of human nature.” From all over the world, letters and telegrams of condolence and sympathy flooded the home, many addressed to the boys who had lost their “father.” Boys Town alumni from all parts of America returned “home” to say goodbye to the beloved priest. Due to the large number of mourners who converged on Boys Town, two Masses were conducted in Dowd Memorial Chapel, where Father Flanagan’s remains were laid to rest in the former baptistery.

Several days after the funeral, President Truman visited Boys Town to pay his respects to the children and to lay a wreath on the tomb of Father Flanagan.

Inspired by the vision of Father Flanagan, Boys Towns were eventually established in 89 other locations around the world. The original home established by Father Flanagan nearly 100 years ago now has sites in 11 locations across America.

That wouldn’t surprise the dedicated Irish priest. “The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not,” Father Flanagan once said, “because it is God’s work, not mine.”

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