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Omaha’s Saint: Father Flanagan and the Cause for Canonization

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A small, framed black-and-white photo hangs on the living room wall of the Rev. Clifford Stevens’ modest apartment, located on the south campus of Omaha’s famous Village of Boys Town. It shows Monsignor Edward J. Flanagan sitting at his desk, looking up at several teenage boys standing around him.

“That’s me, second from the right,” declares Stevens, pointing to a dark-haired, good-looking 16-year-old with a dimpled grin. “That picture was taken in 1942 to commemorate the school’s 25th anniversary, the year I came to Boys Town.”

As someone who knew the tall, affable Irish priest personally—and those numbers keep dwindling—Stevens never doubted his mentor and biggest champion would one day travel the road to sainthood.

“He was very warm and gentle, with the kindest smile I ever saw in my life,” says Stevens, still energetic and sharp at age 91. “He was very considerate and completely dedicated to the welfare of children.”

The longtime Omaha priest and prolific author recently discontinued presiding over daily Mass at Dowd Chapel, the Catholic house of worship on campus, to concentrate on writing his third biography of Father Flanagan. Stevens expects publication by the fall as part of Boys Town’s centennial celebration.

“Boys Town has been around 100 years and I’ve been part of it for 75 years,” he says with a mixture of pride and wonder.

Those who have benefited directly from the safe haven created by Father Flanagan for poor, orphaned, abused, neglected, or at-risk boys (the school opened its doors to girls in 1980) need no convincing of the priest’s Christ-like presence on earth. Convincing Rome, that’s another story. It takes years and enormous preparation, as dictated by ancient Catholic canon law.

Four boxes filled with leather-bound dossiers attesting to Father Flanagan’s “heroic virtue” arrived at the Holy See in Rome in June 2015, the result of a 2 1/2 year investigation into the priest’s life by the Omaha archdiocese.

“They literally put Father Flanagan’s whole life on trial here in Omaha,” explains Steve Wolf, a member of the Boys Town alumni group that helped ignite the quest for sainthood in 1999. “Everything that could possibly be known about Father Flanagan, through any number of sources, was all examined thoroughly.”

Although 2,000 names precede Father Flanagan’s on the list of sainthood causes, the boxes from Omaha have not sat idly in some Vatican room.

“We know the tribunal in Rome is reviewing the work of the Omaha archdiocese because they’ve been communicating with us here, trying to clarify information or asking for additional testimony,” Wolf says. “It’s absolutely an active, open case, and that’s encouraging.”

Will Rome agree Father Flanagan led a life so good and so holy in service to others that he put his own life in peril? Does he meet the requirement of “historic virtue?” Wolf, a 1980 graduate of Boys Town, sees no other conclusion.

“He received death threats many times because he was without prejudice or discrimination, integrating Boys Town with blacks and kids of Jewish faith,” he says. “The Ku Klux Klan once threatened to burn Boys Town down,” prompting Father Flanagan to respond, “What color is a man’s soul?”

If the case for sainthood didn’t exist, “[Omaha] Archbishop [George] Lucas would never have signed off on it and sent the boxes to Rome,” says Wolf, who readily admits Boys Town turned his life around. The father of five girls now heads The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion, an organization made up of alumni and lay Catholics that focuses on fundraising and forwarding the cause of sainthood through an international groundswell of support. Wolf credits the hard work of Boys Town historian Tom Lynch with enabling a speedy local investigation into Father Flanagan’s life.

“When I was hired by Boys Town 30 years ago as a graduate student in history, our archives weren’t organized,” explains Lynch, chairman of the historical commission that gathered written material for the sainthood cause. “We had about 2 million documents and half-a-million pictures just dumped in the building without rhyme or reason.”

Every day for more than 10 years, Lynch picked up pieces of paper, read them, then placed them in the proper category until the archives became a major resource center. Lynch and his “great crew of volunteers” eventually created a timeline accounting for nearly every day of the priest’s life, from his birth in Ballymoe, Ireland, in 1886, to his death from a heart attack in 1948 while on a goodwill trip to post-war Germany.

Lynch created the Hall of History, where thousands of visitors come every year to learn the story of Boys Town and the man who founded it. When the representative Rome sent to Omaha to investigate the sainthood request saw all the required material on display, he told Lynch, “You’ve taken about 25 years off the process.”

Those closely involved in the cause, though sworn to secrecy, cautiously think all the requisites for beatification and canonization exist. A separate tribunal in Rome is examining two of the 17 alleged miracles attributed to Father Flanagan (after his death), where someone was cured after praying to him, defying medical explanation. If proved, the Vatican will declare him Blessed, followed by a declaration of sainthood.

Father Flanagan began his life with people praying to God on his behalf, offering up pleas for divine intervention. On the day he came into the world, Eddie Flanagan, the eighth of 11 children born to a sheep farmer and his wife in County Roscommon, Ireland, turned blue, then purple and started convulsing. The midwife told the family the baby wouldn’t last the night.

But Eddie’s grandfather, a veterinarian, unbuttoned his flannel shirt, wrapped the newborn in a blanket and held him against his chest. He paced in front of the large kitchen hearth all night, holding the baby close. By morning, the baby’s coloring had returned to normal. Prayers had been answered.

“We believe he was born prematurely, which would explain why the family was so worried those first few days,” says Wolf. It would also help explain why Eddie was susceptible to respiratory problems all his life—health so fragile it nearly derailed his deep desire to follow his older brother, Patrick, into the priesthood.

Illness forced him to leave the seminary twice, once in Yonkers, outside New York City, the other time in Rome. After nearly dying from double pneumonia while studying in New York, his brother Patrick, who had been dispatched from Ireland to minister in “the Middle Western Plains of Nebraska,” suggested Eddie stay with him in Omaha. “The air is clean and brisk here, where your lungs can heal,” wrote Patrick.

The younger Flanagan regained his health in Omaha, but “the archbishop didn’t want him! He thought he was too sickly to become a priest and wouldn’t let him study here,” says Stevens, shaking his head. “So he got a job as an accountant at the Cudahy meat packing plant in South Omaha. That’s where he acquired his business skills.”

The young man finally finished his seminary studies in the warmer climes of Innsbruck, Austria, and returned to Omaha after his ordination in 1912. Five years later, on Dec. 12, 1917, Father Flanagan opened his first Boys Home at 25th and Dodge streets. He had found his calling.

People who only know Father Flanagan from Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1938 movie Boys Town may understand his mission, “but they don’t know this man,” says Wolf. “He was a consultant to world leaders on youth care after World War II. Who did President Truman send to Japan and Germany—countries we had defeated—to assess the problem of displaced or orphaned children? A priest. This priest.”

Almost 70 years after his death, Father Flanagan can still reach out from beyond the grave and touch souls, Wolf believes. He experienced it personally.

Raised in Omaha as a Baptist by a single mom, Wolf had shrugged off all organized religion by the time he graduated from Boys Town, and he held a particular disdain for the Catholic Church. Wolf returned to campus for an alumni convention in 1999, shortly after the group announced plans to seek sainthood for their founder.

“I was sitting in the very last pew of Dowd Chapel for a special Mass that I felt obligated to attend,” he relates, “and I looked over my right shoulder and there’s Father Flanagan’s tomb right there in that little room. Suddenly, I was just overcome, almost crying. Here I am trying to do something to honor him, and I realized I’m not even the kind of kid he would have wanted me to be.”

At that moment, Wolf’s conversion to Catholicism began.

Even historian Tom Lynch, who has immersed himself in all things Flanagan his entire adult life, came away from the tribunal experience with renewed respect for the sanctity of Boys Town’s founder.

“People laughed at him, told him it would never work because he wanted to treat the kids humanely,” Lynch says. “There are no fences or gates around Boys Town. No physical punishment. He was very much their champion.”

As Omaha awaits a decision from Rome, which could take years, Father Flanagan’s legacy continues to better the lives of more than 2 million children and families, with outreach programs and medical services on 11 Boys Town campuses from New York to California.

Father Flanagan must have sensed that his belief in the basic goodness of children would bear fruit. Shortly before his death, he wrote, “… the work will continue, you see, whether I’m here or not, for it’s God’s work, not mine.”

Visit fatherflanagan.org for more information.

Timeline of Father Flanagans Life

July 13, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan born in Leabeg, County Roscommon, Ireland. Parents: John and Honora (Larkin) Flanagan.

July 18, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan baptized, St. Croan’s Catholic Church, Ballymoe, Ireland. Father Crofton officiated. Godparents: Patrick and Mary Jane Flanagan.

August 27, 1904 – Edward Joseph Flanagan arrived in United States aboard S.S. Celtic, White Star Line.

September 1906 – Edward Joseph Flanagan entered St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.

May 31, 1907 – Left St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.

July 4, 1907 – John, Nora, and Edward Flanagan arrive in Omaha, Nebraska.

July 26, 1912 –  Edward Joseph Flanagan ordained by Bishop Elder for the Brixon Diocese in St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.

July 27, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Mass in the Jesuit Church at St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.

August 25, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at Holy Angels Church, Omaha, Nebraska.

September 5, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick Parish, O’Neill, Nebraska.

March 15, 1913 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick’s Church, Omaha (Pastor: John T. Smith).

February 2, 1915 – The Rev. John T. Smith died. Flanagan became acting pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish.

Mid-January 1916 – Father Flanagan opened the Workingmen’s Hotel in the Old Burlington Hotel, leased by St. Vincent de Paul Society.

July 9, 1916 – Father Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Philomena Parish, Omaha, Nebraska (Pastor: James W. Stenson).

Early September 1916 – Father Flanagan moved Workingmen’s Hotel to Livesay Flats where he could care for 300 men.

December 12, 1917 – Founded Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home.

December 12, 1917 – Flanagan celebrated last Mass as assistant pastor, St. Philomena. Relieved of all parish duties.

May 8, 1919 – Flanagan became a citizen of United States of America.

February 24, 1920 – Articles of Incorporation for Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home filed with state of Nebraska.

Summer 1921 – Began construction of five buildings on Overlook Farm: two school buildings, two dormitories, and a refectory/dining hall.

October 17-22, 1921 – Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home moved to Overlook Farm.

July 2, 1922 – Elected president of Omaha Welfare Board.

September 1925 – Inauguration of periodical radio broadcasts for Father Flanagan broadcast over WOAW, sponsored by Woodmen of the World Insurance.

March 1927 – Father Flanagan moved into new home, Father Flanagan House.

October 12, 1930 – Radio program ”Voice of the Homeless Boy” expanded outside of Omaha.

October 23, 1937 – Flanagan appointed Domestic Prelate with title of “Right Reverend Monsignor” by His Holiness, Pope Pius XI.

November 21, 1937 – Investiture service for Father Flanagan to Monsignor, Boys Town Auditorium.

December 2, 1937 – Appointed to Childrens’ Committee of National Conference of Catholic Charities.

February 20, 1939 – Honorary Life Member of the Boys’ Republic of Arlington, Virginia.

June 26, 1939 – Father Flanagan received First Annual Humanitarian Award from Variety Clubs International. Presented by founder, John W. Harris, at Fontenelle Hotel, Omaha, Nebraska.

November 1939 – Father Flanagan appointed to Board of Diocesan Consultors to succeed Monsignor A. M. Colaneri.

April 2, 1941 – Father Flanagan appointed by governor of California to Governor’s Committee on the Whittier State School.

May 27, 1942 – Father Flanagan received certificate for Distinguished Service on Behalf of the National War Savings Program, U.S. Treasury Department.

November 3, 1942 – Father Flanagan began weeklong war bond tour, during which he sold almost $3 million in bonds.

February 1944 – Father Flanagan made life member of the National Humanitarian Award Committee, Variety Clubs International.

September 5, 1944 – Certificate of Service from U.S. Navy, Letter from Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal to Father Flanagan.

October 17, 1944 – Father Flanagan received letter naming him Number One War Dad in America by the National Council, American War Dads.

February 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan named to National Panel for Study of Juvenile Delinquency Problems by U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark.

April 7, 1946 – Father Flanagan appointed member of the Naval Civilian Committee by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal.

November 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan received the Kiwanis Medal for Distinguished Service from Kiwanis Club of Lincoln, Nebraska.

February 28, 1947 – Father Flanagan received an invitation from Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson to tour Japan on behalf of war orphans, etc.

April 7, 1947 – Father Flanagan left Omaha for Japan and Korea at invitation of Secretary of War Robert Patterson and General Douglas MacArthur regarding juvenile welfare.

July 8-11, 1947 – Father Flanagan went to Washington, D.C., to report to Secretary of War and Navy and President Harry S. Truman.

May 15, 1948 – Died, Berlin, Germany.

May 17, 1948 – Funeral for Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan in Berlin Cathedral. Conrad Cardinal V on Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, officiated.

May 21, 1948 – Funeral for Edward Joseph Flanagan in The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Dowd Memorial Chapel, Boys Town, Nebraska.

Steps Toward Canonization

by Thomas Lynch

Attaining sainthood follows three phases and four steps of recognition. The phases are pre-diocesan, diocesan, and Roman. The levels of recognition are (in sequential order) Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and Saint.

The pre-diocesan phase requires a spontaneous or groundswell of devotion. The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion initiated this first phase of the process.

Omaha archbishop George Lucas initiated the second phase by appointing a tribunal to investigate the life and virtues of Father Flanagan. This is the diocesan phase, during which the candidate is recognized as Servant of God. In a formal ceremony during June 2015, the archbishop advanced the cause to the Vatican for further investigation.

Currently, Father Flanagan is in the Roman phase. A tribunal appointed by the Vatican further investigates the life and virtues of Father Flanagan and the miracles associated with him. The canonization process takes many years. To be canonized a saint, there must be proof of at least two miracles attributed to Father Flanagan that have occurred after his death.

The Vatican determines whether he would be recognized as Venerable based on investigation of miracles attributed to Father Flanagan after his death. After being recognized as Venerable, additional miracles (miracles not already submitted for his canonization cause) must be submitted and verified for Father Flanagan to be formally recognized as Blessed. After the tribunal makes recommendations to the pope, he decides whether to declare the priest a saint of the church. Confirmation of sainthood is then scheduled for an official ceremony at a later date.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Coaching Support for New Parents

June 19, 2014 by

She may have been young, but Kassie (not her real name) knew one thing for sure—when she had children, she would not beat them. After spending her childhood frightened and hurting from physical abuse, she absolutely refused to do the same to her children.

But how was she supposed to stop that pattern of violence?

Kassie found the answers she needed at the North Omaha Center for Healthy Families. She came to the Center wanting to be trained to parent differently.  Now the young mother of a toddler and a nine-month old, she’s learning how to parent and discipline her children with love, and without regret.  She likes to call it “E-Parenting,” or parenting with empathy.

Better yet, Kassie is now taking part in the new Lutheran Family Services Home Visitation program, a special “at-home” version of the support that pregnant women and parents of newborns can receive. It’s confidential and completely free.  A parent coach from LFS visits Kassie at home regularly. How are the children doing? Are the teeth coming in okay? Any special screenings or shots due that you need to get?

It’s almost like having an extra grandmother for advice.

The Home Visitation program is available to any Douglas County resident 19 years or older who is pregnant or the parent of a newborn up to six months old. The goal? To give new babies a healthier start and their parents a better chance of developing confidence and self-sufficiency.

It’s working for Kassie. At the time of this writing, she was excitedly telling her parenting coach about the new job she just landed.  Along with developing her parenting skills, getting a better job was one of Kassie’s primary goals when she joined the program. She’s thrilled at what this means for her ability to care for her children.

If you know of someone who would benefit from the Home Visitation program, please call Tameshia Harris (402-504-1733) at the North Omaha Center for Healthy Families.

What happens when a child ages out of foster care?

February 16, 2014 by

Being a child in the foster care system can be lonely and confusing. Just ask Tabitha. Shuffled from one home to another, one town to another—by the time she was in high school, she was an entire year behind in her studies. She lost track of the number of foster homes and families that she left behind. It wasn’t until she was 17—nearly out of the system—that she became part of a family.

While foster care is not ideal, there are a few people who provide some stability and support while you are part of the “system.” Your caseworker. Maybe your therapist. But once you turn 19, those connections are usually lost. There may not be one single, caring adult who asks if you are doing okay. If you have enough to eat or just need a little help. If you have a place to stay or a way to get to work—if you even have a job. Or a way to go to college.

Just one caring person can make all the difference for a young adult who ages out of foster care. On their own, many are simply lost. Without connections, the statistics are grim for these older teens and young adults. Within two years, half are essentially homeless. They may be couch-surfing just to have a warm place to sleep. They have no network to find a job. Few can afford a car or even know how to drive, since the State of Nebraska doesn’t take on the liability of state wards learning those skills. They are easy targets for pimps and human traffickers. Many become pregnant.

Now, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska (LFS) has adopted the national “Family Finding” model. This model recognizes the urgency of helping these young people establish meaningful, supportive, permanent relationships with loving adults—simply as a matter of safety, to start.

LFS is currently the only Nebraska agency providing these types of permanency services to 19-26 year-olds previously in foster care. In July 2013, LFS’ Permanent Connections program began working to build bridges for young adults to biological family members, former foster parents, siblings, former case workers, or group home staff. Most recently, LFS began expanding this support to young adults in Fremont and surrounding areas.

The program starts by identifying 40 people who have somehow been involved in the life of the young person. From this group, a smaller team is chosen. This team includes those willing to make a long-term commitment to this young adult and be an active, stable part of their lives. It’s not as formal as adoption; more like a vow to be a friend.

Many youth who grow up in foster care or spend significant time in foster homes transition into adulthood alone. They lose contact with all the people in their lives who were once in a caring role. Permanent Connections helps these youth create ties with caring and supportive adults who can give them some stability and support.

The Yellow House

January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

“You have to be a little crazy to live with 14 people,” says Josh Buckingham-Weibel, “but, for our family, it just works. And I personally have enjoyed every minute that we’ve lived together.”

Buckingham-Weibel is a junior in college. On Jan. 15, 2009, just a few days before he turned 16, his three siblings and his mom moved into a house with his aunt and uncle and their five kids. A few months later, his uncle’s sister and brother-in-law joined them. Nine kids—now 10—and five adults have made a home in The Yellow House.

The oldest of the kids, Buckingham-
Weibel was all for it when the families were deciding to move in together. The benefits, in his eyes, included getting to see his family on a daily basis, having cousins who are essentially more like younger siblings, and getting to watch them all grow up. “And you learn so much from everybody else in the house,” he adds. “There’s a lot of different life experience that everyone has had, so there’s a lot to learn.”

The appeal of 
shared parenting

Was it kind of like having five parents? “Well, there’s a lot of accountability, and you really don’t get away with a whole lot,” he says.

That adjustment to the number of parents was one worry that his mom, Amy Lee, had when making this decision. Recently widowed, Lee had become a single parent. “I was concerned about them going from having two parents to one parent to three parents—or three adults in their life every day, nagging them about cleaning their room or whatever. And it ended up being more than three. It’s five,” she says with a laugh.

This idea of community living came about one day while Lee helped her sister with some childcare. “Eric had died almost two years earlier, in July of 2005,” Lee says of her late husband. “In that two years, my sister had two babies.” That’s in addition to the three kids her sister already had. “So she had needed help one day to take her kids to the doctor or something. And I had gone over and helped her.”

That day made her sister wish that Lee lived closer.

“Here I am, trying to figure out what it means to do life by myself. And here’s my sister trying to figure out how to deal with two small babies,” says Lee. “It was really just coming to this place of wanting to support each other. Moms with small kids get to feeling pretty isolated and alone. And moms who are widows get to feeling pretty isolated and alone.”

First the sisters talked about moving into the same neighborhood. However, when they started to look at the options, neither family’s needs could be accommodated in the other’s neighborhood. And that’s when the conversation turned to the two families buying a house together.

The hunt for a place that worked for everyone

“We did some reading, we did a lot, a lot, a lot of talking, and we did a lot of praying,” Lee remembers. “And we decided: We’ll commit to five years.”

The house-buying process took a year and a half—“plenty of time for people to back out; plenty of space for the conversations we needed to have,” says Lee.

Those conversations included drafting a mission statement and other community documents that were specific about things like no extramarital affairs, no alcohol or drug abuse, and what “safe touch” meant. This ensured that they were all on the same page to start out.

In that time, “we looked at, gosh, hundreds of houses. And I’m not joking,” says Lee. They put offers on five other houses that didn’t work out for one reason or another. “Then winter hit. A bunch of houses dropped in pricing, and this house came more into our price range.”

The 3,600-square footage includes six bedrooms and two and a half baths, with expansive front and back yards. “It’s definitely more space than I could ever take care of on my own,” says Lee. But it was perfect for a community living space. (And it’s even been approved by the Omaha Planning Department.)

Adults No. 4 and 5, Amanda and Chad Knihal, were invited to consider living in this community shortly thereafter. As a couple planning to have kids, “I was pretty confident that, if we had children, I would want to stay home with them,” says Amanda. “And the idea of having two other moms who were also at home at that time was really exciting.”

The two years that the Knihals originally committed to went quickly, and now it’s been almost five. The Knihals had a baby last August and have been getting a lot of questions about whether or not they’ll stay in The Yellow House. For now, anyway, Amanda says, “This is just where we live—this is home.”

The payoff of a family that’s closer than ever

Lee has loved having the Knihals around. Before they had a baby and became “real adults,” they were a great bridge between Lee and her teenagers. “Close enough to those teen years that they remember what it’s like, but adult enough to understand where I’m coming from,” Lee says.

And, as far as parenting goes, “I learn all the time from them—all four of them—even though I’ve been parenting longer,” Lee says.

“I really value that my kids get to live with other adults, especially married people. That they get to see two couples who love each other and who respect each other and who work together. They wouldn’t have gotten to see that if we didn’t do this. I think that’s really valuable in life,” Lee says, tears welling up. “On the flip side of that, it’s been surprising to me how that makes me miss Eric a lot, to watch that.”

Lee’s biggest concern in all this was moving the kids out of the house that they lived in with their dad. “That place carried so many memories for them—for us all,” she says. “And it was hard. It was hard to leave there. They’d already been through a lot of change, and so to put them through another one…I was really concerned about that.”

When she asked the kids about it, they had some questions, but they seemed very positive and interested. And the ways that the cousins have bonded have made it all worthwhile.

“I had hoped that our kids would be close,” Lee says, “but I feel like they really have forged some strong friendships. That kind of stuff anchors you in life. When you have made movies and played games and roasted marshmallows and skated with sparklers on the ice rink in the back yard—what were we thinking? Oh my gosh.”

Traditions like these are what make a house a home, and The Yellow House has no shortage of them. Winter Olympics on that same ice rink, playing Sardines with all the lights off, and countless celebrations mark the passing years. Five will have come and gone in January.

“I’m really grateful for family who were willing to try something that, for our country, is out of the ordinary,” Lee says. “I know it’s not for everybody, but I think more people should try it.”