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Flanagan Society members: The work is strengthening their faith

Archbishop George J. Lucas stands with Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion members Ed Flanagan, left, and Steve Wolf March 17 under the famous “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” statue on the Boys Town campus. Archbishop Lucas presided at a Mass on campus to officially open the sainthood cause for Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan. Flanagan, a great-nephew of Father Flanagan, and Wolf have been involved with the society since it formed 13 years ago. Photo by Lisa Maxson/staff.

Steven Wolf - the president of a society focused on furthering the sainthood cause of Father Edward Flanagan - knows the effect the founder of Boys Town continues to have on people.

He counts himself among those people.

The former fallen-away Baptist and self-proclaimed agnostic lived at Boys Town from ages 14 to 18 but converted to Catholicism years later, after getting involved almost by accident in Father Flanagan's cause and learning more about the priest's faith and good works helping orphaned and troubled youth.

"I tell people that Father Flanagan basically saved me twice," said Wolf, 49, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha who has been working for 13 years on the sainthood cause. "Maybe the second one is a work in progress, but certainly as a kid who needed help, (Boys Town) helped save my mortal hide."

Two others involved with the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion (FFLSD), Ken Suddeth and Sharon Nelsen, said their faith lives have changed as well, and are an important source of motivation as they work on the cause.

Wolf, Suddeth, Nelsen and about 700 other people saw an important step taken in that cause March 17, when Archbishop George J. Lucas held a Mass at Boys Town declaring Father Flanagan - who died in 1948 at age 61 - a "servant of God" and officially opening the process to determine sainthood.

"The Mass and the day were a complete blessing," but a great deal of hard work remains, Wolf said.

Wolf said his involvement in the society began by coincidence.

He was vice president of the Boys Town Alumni Association in 1999 when Suddeth, the president at the time, decided to make the cause for Father Flanagan's sainthood a primary mission of the association.

At first, Wolf's involvement did not extend beyond admiring Father Flanagan and wanting to help the alumni association. But learning more about Father Flanagan's life and virtues helped convert him to the Catholic faith two years later, and turned him into something of a disciple for the cause, Wolf said.

In recent years he has devoted about two hours a day, seven days a week to the work, even while raising five children with his wife, Keery, and running a public affairs and strategic planning firm in Omaha.

"I just feel like I don't know if I could ever do enough to say 'thank you' to Father Flanagan and the people at Boys Town," Wolf said. "(Living at Boys Town) is really a debt you can never fully repay. But I want to do that."

As FFLSD president, Wolf oversees the league's efforts, which include monthly prayer meetings at Father Flanagan's tomb at Immaculate Conception Church at Boys Town, speaking about him publicly, coordinating prayer groups in Ireland, which is Father Flanagan's native land, and leading pilgrimages to Boys Town.
Suddeth, like Wolf a former resident of Boys Town, said admiration for Father Flanagan sparked his interest in the priest's life while he was a high school student at Boys Town in the 1960s.

An orphan from the Korean War, Suddeth came to Boys Town when he was 11. Suddeth said the home gave him a second chance at education, religion and relationships, and he became Catholic during his sophomore year in high school.

Suddeth, 65, said after he took over as president of the alumni association, he decided to focus its efforts on Father Flanagan's sainthood cause because he had been thinking about it for years, and he believes many graduates share his gratitude toward Boys Town. "I had read about the lives of other saints, and I thought, 'if they can be a saint, why can't Father Flanagan?'" said Suddeth, who lives in Columbus, Ga.

Suddeth formed a committee within the alumni association that focused on the sainthood cause. Over the years, that committee became the FFLSD and people not associated with Boys Town became involved.

Now, the society has a 13-member board of directors that manages its administrative, financial and legal requirements, and an advisory council that focuses on the spiritual and devotional aspects of outreach. All are volunteers.

Unlike Wolf and Suddeth, Nelsen never lived at Boys Town, but she had admired its founder. She joined the society in 2000 and coordinates the devotional aspects of its work.

Nelsen, 73, of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, said she began researching the church's sainthood process and generating materials on Father Flanagan's life and virtue for print publications and the society's website, www.fatherflanagan.org. She also coordinates Father Flanagan tours at Boys Town and the society's prayer meetings at his tomb.

While helping others learn about Father Flanagan's gifts, Nelsen said she has discovered her own.

"I have begun to see that I have a lot more strength in areas where I used to step back, and I have a lot more endurance," she said.

Nelsen said she also has developed a growing appreciation for Father Flanagan's faith and holiness.

Information gathered by Nelsen and other members of the society includes six potential miracles attributed to Father Flanagan's intercession, and evidence of devotion to Father Flanagan in nine countries.

About seven members of the society meet monthly and work on the sainthood cause, but as many as 50 have attended meetings, Wolf said.

Members of the society will continue to work hard and put their faith in God, he said.


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