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The courts had assigned three homeless orphans to Father Flanagan‘s care. Ed Flanagan, having recently come to the conclusion that looking after juveniles was a full time job, had asked permission of Archbishop Jeremiah Harty to open a home. Harty gave him permission, but warned him he’d be on his own financially. The parish just couldn’t afford any more for poor relief.
How was Ed, a poor priest, to care for them? Full of faith, he found an old house in Omaha, Nebraska which might shelter them for the winter. He borrowed $90 from an unnamed friend to pay the first month’s rent for December, 1917. On this day, December 12, 1917, he opened the first house in the work that became known as Boy’s Town.
That same day, the court placed two juvenile delinquents in his care. Someone donated a barrel of sauerkraut. That was Christmas dinner for the boys.
Father Flanagan often said, “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” Motivated by Christ‘s command to love our neighbor as ourselves, he strove to turn troubled youth into godly men. He summed up his thinking in these words: “It is not enough to see that an underprivileged child is given good food, warm clothing and a clean bed. An army commissary can do as much. No! More than food, clothes, and shelter, what these lads have been deprived of is mother’s tenderness and father’s wisdom, and the love of a family. We will never get anywhere in our reform schools and orphan asylums until we compensate for that great loss in young lives.”
Only about 20% of the boys he originally took had been in trouble with the law. He soon moved them from the old house in Omaha to acres outside town called Overlook Farm.
In 1936 the community was renamed Boys Town and incorporated as a village. Welfare agencies and juvenile court judges recommended kids to Boys Town, which was supported entirely by voluntary contributions. From the start, religion and moral instruction was based on the prior religious affiliation of the children.
Boys town is still going and now accepts girls, too. The problems of today’s children differ from those first five boys Father Flanagan took in. Today’s children have often suffered sexual abuse, been gang members, or used drugs. Many have learning disabilities. Some are simply sent away by frustrated parents. Boys Town has established satellite homes in Florida, California, and Texas and is a consultant to other homes in 10 states. Boys Town has cared for many since that cold December in 1917 when Father Flanagan borrowed $90 from a friend.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Oursler, Fulton and Oursler, Will. Father Flanagan of Boys Town. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1949.
Article by Diana Severance, Ph.D. who is Director of the Durham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. She received her PhD in history from Rice University and is the author of several books, including Her-Story: Devotions from Twenty-One Centuries of the Christian Church; Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History; A Cord of Three Strands: Three Centuries of Christian Love Letters; The Story of Emily, a Proverbs 31 Woman; and, with her husband Gordon, Against the Gates of Hell: A Christian Missionary in a Moslem World.