This article originally appeared in the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago newsletter “Crossroads."
One of the longest ministries the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago served was at Boys Town, Nebraska. Established in 1917 by the famous Father Edward Flanagan, Boys Town was a home and school for neglected and underprivileged boys. Over the years Boys Town grew into an enormous charitable community that helped thousands of young men (and later young women and families as well). The community became even more famous in the 1938 movie, Boys Town, which starred actors Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Father Flanagan).
In 1940, Father Flanagan wrote to Mother M. Antonina Osinski (General Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago) requesting Sisters to help work in the Domestic Department at Boys Town, Nebraska. After meeting with Father Flanagan and seeing all the good work Boys Town was doing for the young men, Mother M. Antonina decided to join the ministry at Boys Town and supply Sisters to work there. The Sisters initially staffed the dining room, kitchen, laundry, sewing and housekeeping departments. As the population grew, they moved from domestic work to office work and were involved in bookkeeping, payroll, and running the business office. Later the Sisters were called upon to serve in teaching positions and infirmary and nursing work. Over the years, nearly 75 Sisters would serve at Boys Town between 1940 and 1976. When the Sisters finally left in 1976, the Dowd Memorial Chapel Bulletin wrote a beautiful tribute to them and their indispensable contributions: “They were the heart and soul of the Boys Town community."
One young girl, whose father worked at Boys Town in the 1940's, was so inspired by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, she later joined their community. Sister Kathleen Melia entered religious life in 1956 and has been a Franciscan Sister of Chicago for 64 years. For this issue of Crossroads, Sister Kathleen has written a wonderful piece on her life as a child at Boys Town.
I was a Girl at Boys Town, By Sister Kathleen Melia, OSF
Boys Town, Nebraska: white, green, and brown, or more accurately, khaki. Pure white was the snow that visited us so often in fall, winter, and spring and rose in towering drifts as snowplows moved it off roads and sidewalks. Green was the vast expanse of grass just beyond the little apartment building where we lived. Khaki was the color of my Dad's crispy-ironed uniform he wore to work every day as the chief engineer of Boys Town.
My mother, father, little brother, and I took up residency in Boys Town in 1941. The one-story apartment building housed several families who had ties with Boys Town one way or another. We children of employees had a school of our own and regardless of our ages, we were all in one room with one teacher: Sister Mary Agnes Zywiec. She was a master at giving us all age-appropriate lessons while making each of us feel very special and loved.
Our school was in a then deserted post office building and had an area in the back which was cordoned off by a flimsy set of sheets. Pulling the sheets back, I quickly discovered the absolutely beautiful train set and tracks that apparently were just stored there. So, if Kathleen went missing, she was probably pulling the shiny cars along the long rows of tracks.
Sister Agnes was one of the many Franciscan Sisters of Chicago who worked at Boys Town. They worked in the dormitories of the grade school boys, in the infirmary, in the kitchen, and in the chapel. They worked in billing and payroll. Their convent was about a block from where we lived and so we children would stroll over to visit them when they sat outside for their recreation. Not one ever shooed us away. I also would stand on the sidewalk just outside their chapel and listen to them pray and sing.
It seemed to me that the Sisters lived a very happy life of prayer, service, and fun. Some drove cars even as their wide veils seemed to be a valid hindrance. Sr. Electa Rytel and Sr. Simon Glowacki would put on roller skates and zoom down the very smooth sidewalk just outside their convent. It occurred to me that someday I might follow Sr. Agnes into the convent.
My Mom and Dad were very religious and set a wonderful example for my brother and me. Mass on Sunday morning was quite an experience with the famed Boys Town choir filling the large Dowd Memorial Chapel with the sound of a hundred melodious angels. I remember feeling the pews vibrate from the boys' beautiful voices. People came from all over to attend Mass at Boys Town.
Rescued by Father Flanagan: The Takahashi Family
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States vented some of its anger and paranoia on Japanese-Americans by uprooting them from their homes and jobs and placing them in confinement amid dismal squalor.
Father Flanagan was asked by another priest to rescue Toshio Takahashi, his wife, and their children living in an internment camp in California and possibly give Mr. Takahashi a job at Boys Town. The Takahashi family eventually moved in just down the street from us and the children and I became classmates and best friends.
Mr. Takahashi was a skilled landscaper and gardener and there was plenty for him to do in Boys Town because of the many different kinds of trees, acres of grass, fields of alfalfa, gardens, bushes, and all kinds of shrubbery. But I remember best Mr. Takahashi's large personal garden of gladiolas which he planted just outside his house. His gladiolas were a gorgeous splash of color and he beamed with pride when my family, or anyone, would come to see his flowers.
I am still very much in touch with the Takahashis' oldest daughter, Marilyn, who lives with her husband in California. Marilyn, who had the endearing nickname “Winkie," was a couple of grades ahead of me in the same classroom with Sr. Agnes. She is one of the most talented women on the planet and I'm proud to have her as a friend for 75 years and counting.
Father Flanagan, A Man who Helped Boys Become Men
Boys Town, Nebraska, was founded by Father Edward Joseph Flanagan in 1917. Father's dream was to give boys a second chance at life. At the time my family lived there, Boys Town was home to about 1,000 boys of grade school and high school ages. One well-known story encapsulates the mission of Boys Town. A boy was carrying his little brother on his back as they made their way up the long driveway to find Father Flanagan. When Father saw them, he remarked how tired the older boy must be and how he was sweating in the Nebraska heat. But the boy said, “He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother."
Father Flanagan was a frequent visitor to our little classroom and I remember the Christmas gifts he would personally deliver to Sr. Agnes and her students. Though we didn't really appreciate the magnitude of this priest's life, we knew he was someone important and admired.
Father Flanagan hired my Dad to be the chief engineer of Boys Town. Every day, my Dad would don his khakis and wade into the tasks of the day which could range from stopping a leaky faucet, to making sure the water tower was operating properly, to putting out a fire, to rounding up a cow that had wandered off the Boys Town farm. My Dad was so proud when Fr. Flanagan would call him by his first name, Earl, and ask him to drive him to Omaha for something. Who would guess that we all were in the presence of someone who is now up for sainthood?
One day, in 1948, the terrible news reached Boys Town that Fr. Flanagan had suffered a heart attack while visiting Berlin, Germany, and did not survive. I was standing outside with my parents days later when Father's body was brought in a black hearse to the Chapel. The boys lined the long driveway and were openly weeping. Then everything became so still. The only sound was the low groan of the hearse as it moved slowly past us.
With the passing of Fr. Flanagan, my father started looking for another job. He started up his own plant that made insulation for houses and it meant that we would be leaving not only Boys Town, but Nebraska as well. We moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where I was happy to begin the fifth grade in a “normal" school setting. I was 10 years old in 1949. The Sisters of Loretto were my teachers in grade school in Pueblo and I had the Sisters of Charity in high school. But I never forgot the wonderful Franciscans of Boys Town.
Father Edward J. Flanagan is interred in the Dowd Memorial Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Boys Town, Nebraska. At this site in 2012, he was given the title “Servant of God," the first of three titles bestowed before canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church.
More Snippets of Life at Boys Town – Years 1941 to 1949
When my Dad mashed his big toe at work, I remember Sr. Innocentia coming over to our apartment with steaks and salads. She didn't come in, just handed the food to my Mom and said she hoped it would help our family out while my Dad mended. I did not know her as Sr. Innocentia because everyone called her Sister Superior.
My Dad told me about how he helped Sr. Anthanasia in the kitchen open up hundreds of canned tomatoes after the boys sealed their paring knives into the jars and then dutifully placed them on the shelves.
One day, my Dad had to move some lockers in a dormitory and out fell dozens of empty wallets. When boys got permission, or even if they didn't, they would visit Omaha and some were apparently very good at picking pockets.
Sr. Bertille was Fr. Flanagan's personal cook and caretaker of his residence. She seemed perfect for the job as she occasionally granted tours of Father's home to us children accompanied by our teacher, Sr. Agnes.
One word that was used a lot in Boys Town was AWOL. Billy went AWOL. Tom is AWOL. He's being punished because he went AWOL. I may not have known exactly what AWOL stood for, but I did understand that a boy had gone off the property and was AWAY WITHOUT LEAVE.
I still can picture little Sr. Electa getting up on a stool to yell at a very tall red-faced high school boy who was goofing off in the theater where a movie was about to be shown.
Babe Ruth, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, and other celebrities visited Boys Town but the boys were the object of their visit and we were just distant onlookers.
One day, a classmate and I were invited into the convent by a Sister who was outside washing windows. We were so thrilled to see the Sisters' dining room and chapel. An extra surprise was a cage in one of the parlors where two yellow canaries sang their little hearts out. We couldn't wait to tell our friends at school that we got to see the inside of the Sisters' convent.
My mother and I visited the Dowd Memorial Chapel one day in the afternoon, and a lone Sister was praying with her arms outstretched. I was in awe. She looked like an angel. I learned much later in life that she was saying her “cross prayers' after she finished the Stations of the Cross.
Sometimes the boys threw rocks at the big street lights in Boys Town, easily shattering them. My Dad had enough of that and designed an unbreakable street lamp that he eventually got a patent for and the broken lamp problem in Boys Town was solved. His lamps were also purchased by other cities for their streets and bridges. Individual homeowners bought the smaller-sized lamps for their yards or to affix to their porches. When I got older, I soldered the iron rings together that fit at the top and bottom of the light. We sold hundreds of these street lights before new technology took over.
In conclusion, my memories of Boys Town are mostly pleasant but I somehow knew this idyllic “city of little men" was a place I was just passing through, like the boys who lived there. My real world started when we moved to Colorado into our own home, and my new school was everything I dreamed a school should be.
To learn more about the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, visit their website.