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Msgr. Peter Dunne Had a 'Major Impact' on Many Lives

This article is written by ​Roger Buddenberg, World-Herald staff writer. It was posted October 9, 2015 on

Monsignor Peter Dunne, who worked alongside the founder of Boys Town, the Rev. Edward Flanagan, died late Thursday in his residence at the storied Omaha-area home for troubled youth. He was 96.

Known as a pastor of northeast Nebraska parishes for more than half a century and as a regular voice on the Catholic radio network he helped found, Dunne “had a major impact on many people’s lives. ... People were still coming at the end to see him,” said Vicki Herout, his assistant and caregiver for the past two decades.

She said he was a much-sought confessor, a mentor to many fellow priests and a trove of first-person history on his mentor Flanagan, the priest made famous when Spencer Tracy portrayed him in the 1938 movie, “Boys Town.” (The Oscar that Tracy won sits in Boys Town’s Hall of History museum.)

“When I met him,” Dunne once said of Flanagan, “I really felt like I had walked into the presence of greatness. It was sort of a strange experience. ... He always gave a sense of strength and surety.”

Peter Francis Dunne was born Feb. 22, 1919, the son of Peter and Katherine Dunne, Irish immigrants who’d met at Omaha’s Sacred Heart Church, said Herout.

His father was a battalion fire chief. His mother died an hour after her son was ordained in 1944, leaving him with a promise to pray for him and a request that the diamond from her wedding ring be embedded in the chalice he would use to offer daily Mass.

Dunne’s first assignment was as a priest at Boys Town, where he worked with Flanagan until the elder priest died of a heart attack in 1948.

Dunne’s assignment to Boys Town lasted until 1958, when he began leading parishes around the Omaha Archdiocese — in Dixon, Pierce, Norfolk, O’Neill — before returning to his hometown to head St. Margaret Mary Church. In 17 years at that midtown parish, he earned an army of admirers and a reputation as a dynamic preacher.

In 1989, at age 70, he retired to Boys Town, although Herout said “ ‘retirement’ was a major misnomer for him.”

Dunne had kept working at KVSS, the radio station he helped launch, and was active in anti-abortion events. The colon cancer he’d defeated a dozen years ago never recurred, she said.

He was still presiding at Mass regularly until about a month ago, Herout said, when his heart weakened and his health deteriorated.

“Two words: joyful and faithful,” Omaha Archbishop George Lucas said in summing up Dunne’s life. “He was encouraging to me and anyone else he met.”

Lucas said the large crowd that turned out for the 70th anniversary of Dunne’s ordination a year ago “was a great witness to the effect that his priesthood had on so many. ... He’s been a priest for a big portion of the history of the archdiocese.”

KVSS and its 14 affiliate radio stations across Nebraska have lost their beloved chaplain, said Executive Director Jim Carroll.

“He was the inspiration for the founding of the network, starting back in 1949 when he led the rosary on a radio station in Norfolk, Nebraska,” Carroll said. “Monsignor Dunne’s voice continues to be an inspiration, as he leads the rosary every evening at 10 p.m.”

Herout said Dunne loved to travel, especially to “the other Holy Land” — as he liked to call his parents’ native Ireland — and to Rome and the shrine at Lourdes, France.

Dunne was regularly recognized, she said, even when he visited abroad. “People were always coming up to him to ask, ‘Aren’t you that priest from Boys Town?’ ”

A funeral Mass is scheduled for Oct. 17 at St. Cecilia Cathedral, though other details are pending, the archdiocese said.

A brother, Tom, and a sister, Theresa Komarek, died before Dunne. Two nephews and a niece survive him.