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Creighton historian compiles biography for Fr. Flanagan sainthood case

Somewhere in the Vatican right now resides one of the latest research contributions of Creighton University Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor in History Heather Fryer, PhD.

Only a select few will see the biography Fryer spent three years quietly researching and writing on the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, the Roman Catholic priest who founded Boys Town in 1921 and is a legendary figure in Omaha and known the world over for his tireless advocacy on behalf of children. Fryer’s biography will ultimately land on a shelf somewhere in the Vatican but for now, it’s serving to separate that legend from the man as part of the long and arduous process of Fr. Flanagan’s candidacy for sainthood, a cause célèbre of longstanding in Omaha.

“It’s a very interesting way of doing historical research and writing, one that I’ve never experienced before,” said Fryer, who was tapped to serve on the Historical Commission for the Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan, part of the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion, the organization backing the priest’s sainthood. “But it was a way of helping the 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.”

In 2008, Tom Lynch, Boys Town’s director of community programs, who oversees the archives, contacted Fryer. With expertise in 20th century social history and a book on the way that, in part, looked at life in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, Lynch asked Fryer if she might be interested in looking at how Fr. Flanagan had brought some of the working-age internees to Boys Town.

As that part of the Fr. Flanagan story emerged, Fryer received a request in 2012 from the Father Flanagan League to serve on the Historical Commission. 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.

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.

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

“A mythology builds up around people and you hear a lot of ‘first and only,’” Fryer said. “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.”

Still, some context was required. For instance, Fr. Flanagan’s Omaha career started with a ministry and a workingman’s hotel for unemployed men in the 1920s. The hotel’s population spiked at one point during a particularly pernicious drought in Kansas. That sent Fryer to weather charts and estimates of crop loss.

“Sitting and reading in 2017 Rome about a Nebraska priest’s response to a climate disaster in an adjacent state nearly a century ago could pose challenges in figuring out what it meant,” Fryer said. “All I can do is give them as close and as clear a picture of the reconstructed life as possible and that’s where the in-depth, detailed look at all of the documents in the Boys Town archive and other sources came in.”

Some of those other sources included side trips into Omaha history and, since Spencer Tracy earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of Fr. Flanagan in the 1938 film Boys Town, there was some delving into Hollywood history, too. A replica of Tracy’s Oscar statuette ended up on Fr. Flanagan’s desk at Boys Town.

“It was an interesting question to pursue: What happens when a Catholic priest becomes a Hollywood figure?” Fryer said. “How did people talk about Fr. Flanagan in that context? How did he use that platform? When you have a cross and an Academy Award in your possession, that’s a curious dynamic at work.”

In 2015, Fryer wrapped up her portion of the biography, which detailed Fr. Flanagan’s life from his emigration to the U.S. in 1904. The Rev. Gerard Cryan, a history teacher at Summerhill College in Sligo, Ireland, where Fr. Flanagan attended secondary school, worked on the priest’s early years. Fr. Flanagan was born in County Roscommon in 1886 and died suddenly in Berlin, Germany in 1948 while on a mission prompted by President Harry S Truman to assess the state of children living in the war-ravaged Axis powers of Germany and Japan.

The biography went into one of four huge boxes that were wrapped and sealed by Omaha Archbishop the Rev. 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 into Fr. Flanagan’s heroic virtue, including finding at least two miracles after prayers for his intercession. 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.

“All we can do now is wait,” Fryer said.


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