A Shining Light

A Shining Light

A Creighton professor and professor emerita work on canonization efforts for Boys Town founder Fr. Flanagan

By Adam Klinker

Only a select few will see the biography Creighton professor Heather Fryer, PhD, spent three years quietly researching and writing on the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, the Roman Catholic priest who began the Boys Town mission in 1917, ministering to unemployed men and wayward boys in the streets of downtown Omaha.

Fryer’s biography — which looks to separate the man from the myth — is a key element in the long and arduous process of Fr. Flanagan’s candidacy for sainthood.

“It’s a very interesting way of doing historical research and writing, one that I’ve never experienced before,” says Fryer, who served on the Historical Commission for the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan.

“But it was a way of helping the (Vatican) Tribunal take its own measure of the man. It’s a history absent interpretation. It does not argue anything, which is not how a historian is trained. But it delves way more deeply into the details of the life and influence of one fascinating person than most projects allow.”

While working on a separate project involv­ing Fr. Flanagan, one looking into the assistance he provided to Japanese-Americans during World War II, Fryer became intrigued with Fr. Flanagan’s life and his larger-than-life persona. In 2012, when the Father Flanagan League called asking if Fryer would lend her academic expertise to their push for the canonization of Fr. Flanagan, she jumped at the chance.

To begin building the sainthood case, the league needed — along with prayers and what is called a groundswell of devotion — an exhaus­tive recapitulation of Fr. Flanagan’s life.

At the same time, another Creighton faculty member, Sister Joan Mueller, OSC, PhD, in the Department of Theology, was assigned by the archbishop to chair the Theological Com­mis­sion, whose charge was to comb through Fr. Flanagan’s writings and homilies, making sure the theological underpinnings of his life and mission were compliant with Church teaching.

“Our job was an interesting one,” says Sr. Mueller, now a professor emerita. “Fr. Flanagan was a unique individual, especially for his time. A very progressive figure. Our job was to find out whether that progressiveness had theological grounding and discernment. Was his work coherent with the teachings of the Church? Did his lived example, as well as his words and writings, signal a faithful, priestly and moral life?”

Along with Fryer’s historical biography, the work of the Theological Commission also was forwarded to Rome, where the final decision rests with the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and, ultimately, the pope.

Working from a voluminous archive at Boys Town, Fryer began the process of recreating Fr. Flanagan’s life in as granular detail as possible, while also putting into context the times in which he lived.

Living and working in the early 20th century, Fr. Flanagan became a trendsetter in more ways than one, says Tom Lynch, Boys Town’s director of community programs, who oversees the archives. He revolutionized the way much of society viewed children and, when his method of bringing together boys of different races, ethnicities and religions chafed some people in Omaha, he moved his mission out into the countryside west of the city, where it sits to this day, although the city has grown around it.

“The prevailing idea of the time was eugenics,” Lynch says, citing the pseudoscience that gave rise to various 20th century efforts at ethnic cleansing. “That and the Edwardian era notion that you could beat the devil out of a child were the basic ideas around how to deal with children who might not have had the proper parental guidance.

“Boys Town is a direct rejection of those ideas and Fr. Flanagan made it clear, going around the U.S., that he rejected those ideas that were the mainstream philosophies of the time. And for the most part, he succeeded. We have the documents that show how he went about imploring people around the world to do this work, too.”

Having all these documents — some 3 million papers and half a million photographs — identified, organized and accessible in Boys Town’s Hall of History, a museum in the heart of the community, put the Fr. Flanagan canon­i­zation campaign decades ahead of many similar efforts.

“When I got here, 30 years ago, we were looking at just stacks and stacks of paper on tables,” Lynch says. “Our task at the Hall of History for 30 years has been to organize and categorize that information, and we’ve formed dossiers that deal with Fr. Flanagan’s life, day-to-day, what he did, where he went, whom he met.

“When the causes postulator visited Boys Town as part of the process, he toured the Hall of History and reviewed the archives and said we’d already cut 25 to 30 years off the process.”

Given Fr. Flanagan’s stature, especially in the Omaha area, Fryer says the life sometimes conflates into well-meaning but erroneous superlatives. For instance, it’s sometimes said the priest was the only person in the U.S. to reach out to Japanese-Americans being interned during World War II.

“A mythology builds up around people and you hear a lot of ‘first and only,’ ” says Fryer, an expert in 20th century social history. “Fr. Flanagan did do a lot for Japanese-American internees, but he was not the only person who reached out a hand to internees. What my job was, I found, was to lay out the complete, precise historical picture of the man and his achievements so that the members of the Vatican Tribunal could see them as clearly as possible.”

Sr. Mueller and the Theological Commission encountered similar conversations related to Fr. Flanagan’s celebrity and its role in his larger mission.

“One obvious question is whether Fr. Flanagan moved in the secular forum for God or for publicity,” Sr. Mueller says. “After all, Fr. Flanagan was a priest, first and foremost. But what we found, time after time, is that he used his position to advance the mission at every turn. He answered the letters regular people wrote to him; he took the time. He rescued each individual child; he took the time. He discerned where God needed him and he offered himself to be in the right place and the right time always. That’s grace. That is extraordinary virtue.”

Fr. Flanagan was one of the most recognized people of his day, Lynch says. Even before the film Boys Town, for which Spencer Tracy earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the priest, Fr. Flanagan was often mobbed by crowds and inundated by letter-writers.

“And he would minister to them,” Lynch says. “He was constantly talking to people. Anyone who wrote him a letter, he wrote a response. And it wasn’t all about Boys Town. People wrote to him asking for advice on their marriage, about faith. There are letters from people during World War II, asking about how they should deal with anger and hatred toward the enemy. He sat down and he wrote these people earnest reflections as part of his larger calling.”

The responses sent by Fr. Flanagan, Sr. Mueller says, demonstrate the overwhelming concern he expressed for humanity.

“That kind of letter writing is a charity,” she says. “It’s what you do for people with pastoral needs. It’s quite amazing. He used his time in every conceivable way to minister and be of service.”

Lynch says the priest’s last days in 1948, spent on a mission President Harry Truman asked him to undertake to report on the condition of children in war-ravaged Europe and Asia, is a microcosm of Fr. Flanagan’s life. During that mission, Fr. Flanagan was called to Rome to help Pope Pius XII with a concordat with the Church in Austria, re-establishing relations in the aftermath of World War II.

“It goes to show how highly he was regarded, both in the larger world and in Church circles,” Lynch says. “Here he was, just a monsignor, and the pope is asking him to come help. And he goes. Of course he goes. And then he returns to his mission from the U.S. government and meets children living in the sewers of Tokyo or in bombed out houses in Berlin. He never stopped.”

The work of Fryer and Sr. Mueller went into one of four huge boxes that were wrapped and sealed by Omaha Archbishop George Lucas. On May 15, the 69th anniversary of Fr. Flanagan’s death, the Vatican announced that the case presented by the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion was “complete and without error,” giving rise to a decree of validity.

The next steps are a Vatican inquiry through those many documents sent to Rome to determine if Fr. Flanagan’s life exhibited heroic virtue. That inquiry satisfactorily concluded, Fr. Flanagan would be elevated to venerable status, after which the pope then moves for beatification and canonization.

But it could be many more years before the process gets that far, and Fryer, Lynch and Sr. Mueller say they recognize and appreciate the deliberate nature of the process.

“It was simply a blessing for us to read through the materials that Fr. Flanagan has left to posterity,” Sr. Mueller says. “One of the roles of moving people forward to sainthood is asking, ‘Was the person a Christian example for their particular time?’ Whatever happens moving forward with sainthood, I feel privileged to have been a part of this and to have had an opportunity to wander through the mind of a man who was committed to a great mission and a pastoral genius. I think it’s clear that Fr. Flanagan is a shining light for us.”

Images courtesy of Boys Town Hall of History & Archives