Seamstresses train at the Joseph Ukpo Hospitals and Research Institutes center newly named for Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan.


Father Flanagan legacy spreads to Nigeria

Despite the thousands of miles separating Ireland and Nigeria, Irish surnames are familiar sights in the African nation, especially for its Catholics.

Now, a new Irish last name, one with a famed and lasting impact in Omaha dating back more than a century, is making a difference in rural Nigeria – aided by the generosity of today’s Omahans.

Father Edward J. Flanagan

A new career education center at a Nigerian hospital that serves locals free of charge – the mission of Father Andrew Ekpenyong, a Creighton University physics professor originally from Nigeria who also serves at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Omaha – has been named after Servant of God Edward Flanagan, best known for his work founding Boys Town.

“Father Flanagan’s legacy is spreading,” Father Ekpenyong said. “People in that area have no problem identifying with a name like Flanagan. We were evangelized by Irish missionary priests, and they were so inspiring.”

Father Andrew Ekpenyong

Father Ekpenyong’s choice to name the Skills Acquisition Center after Father Flanagan was in recognition of the similarities of his mission to Boys Town’s roots, as noted by the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The agency has helped facilitate the growth of the Nigerian mission since the Joseph Ukpo Hospitals and Research Institutes first opened in 2018.

When Father Ekpenyong asked for two ultrasound machines to help with prenatal health care, the office answered the call – with both machines still working more than five years later. In later years, it’s helped facilitate the donations of medical equipment and other necessities, both from Omaha and beyond.

All in all, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith has given about $55,000 to the Nigerian mission, said Deacon Omar Gutierrez, who noted that Father Ekpenyong’s call to service mirrored that of the namesake of the Skills Acquisition Center.

“That missionary spirit is such a part of Father Flanagan’s story and such a part of Nigeria,” Deacon Gutierrez said. “… As I’ve learned more about Father Flanagan, I’ve learned he has had that kind of influence all over.”

In the rural area of southern Nigeria where the Joseph Ukpo Hospitals and Research Institutes – named after the archbishop who encouraged him to study overseas – operates, Father Ekpenyong said hospitals serving the poor simply “didn’t exist.”

The first hospital, which opened in 2018, has served more than 17,000 people free of charge, he said. A second hospital followed four years later, with a third in the works. The newest hospital has provided health care to more than 4,000 people, and offered job training at the Skills Acquisition Center.

Drawing a parallel to Flanagan’s work with American youth from impoverished backgrounds, the center aims to train young Nigerians in the skills required for occupations such as sewing and catering in hopes of helping them avoid the poverty endemic to rural areas of his home nation.

“These people would have been our patients; they could have been exploited,” he said. “How do you empower them to escape poverty? You give them skills.”

Cooks and chefs are trained as part of the catering program at the Father Edward Flanagan Skills Acquisition Center.

A similar arc exists in Father Ekpenyong’s own life.

He left his home country in pursuit of higher education, a journey that would send him from Africa to two other continents in pursuit of knowledge. In turn, the majority of the salary he earned as a professor would later help care for and educate Nigeria’s neediest in hopes of offering them a better future.

Which, as Father Ekpenyong pointed out, was made possible in part by what Omaha has done for him and his homeland.

“It’s a beautiful thing for the goodwill of others and the universality of the Church,” he said. “And, by God’s grace, I’m able to give back.”

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