O'Flanagan, Father Robert Dermot
1901-1972 | Catholic Priest of Holy Family Church, Anchorage (1933-1951), and Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau (1951-1968)
The Path to Priesthood
Robert Dermot O’Flanagan was born on March 9, 1901, at Castle D’Arcy, Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland. He always used only Dermot as a first name.
After early schooling at Belvedere College, Dublin, a preparatory school for boys in Ireland, from 1908-1917, Father O’Flanagan entered a Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, County Offaly, Ireland, remaining there for three years. He did his theological studies at St. Ignatius College, Valkenburg, Limburg, Holland, and was ordained as a Jesuit priest there in 1929. From 1930 to 1932, he taught at a Jesuit secondary school for boys, Clongowes Wood College, in County Kildare.1
The year 1932 was a turning point in Father O’Flanagan’s life. In June, he left the Society of Jesus Jesuits, but remained a priest. He attended a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Among those attending was Father Patrick J. O’Reilly, S.J., a veteran missionary of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. As a result of hearing O’Reilly, Father O’Flanagan volunteered for service in Alaska. He was sent to America on the S.S. Manhattan, arriving in New York on December 15, 1932.
In January 1933, Father O’Flanagan arrived in Juneau. He was met by Joseph R. Crimont, S.J., Vicar Apostolic of Alaska, who assigned him a temporary mission, the parish of Seward. He was warmly welcomed by the people of Seward and wrote back to Bishop Crimont: “. . . people were falling over themselves trying to help me and make me feel welcome at home—the non-Catholics as much as the Catholics. It was worthwhile leaving Ireland for that alone.”2
After a short time in Seward, Father O’Flanagan was sent to Anchorage and appointed as pastor of Holy Family Parish in July 1933.3 He was sent to relieve the ailing pastor of Holy Family Parish, Father Godfrey Dane, for a “temporary stint,” but the appointment became permanent. O’Flanagan served as priest for both Anchorage and Seward for eighteen years. Once a month he would travel to Seward to care for the parishioners there, then return to his duties in Anchorage.
Father Louis L. Renner, S.J., in Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska (2005), said this of Father O’Flanagan: “It did not take Father O’Flanagan long to become a well-known figure in Anchorage. His reserve, soft-spoken words, and beguiling Irish ways opened doors and hearts to him and to his message. Frequently he visited the sick in the Railroad Hospital. On a winter day, a common sight was that of Father ‘O’ shoveling snow off the rectory porch or church sidewalks. He tended the church and rectory furnaces, and his dusty coveralls became him no less than did his black cassock.”4
Parishioners recalled Father O’Flanagan was the most remembered of all priests in early Anchorage. His first altar servers were John Bagoy and Gene Pastro. Bagoy said he was known for “his thick Irish brogue and his outgoing personality.”5 Bagoy said that the “ladies of the parish were worried about him not getting enough to eat or eating the right food.”6 His diet seemed to consist of coffee and sweet rolls. They devised a system whereby he ate dinner with various members of the church on successive nights.
Establishment of Providence Hospital (1939)
Father O’Flanagan participated in local activities. He broached the subject of a new community hospital in Anchorage to Bishop Joseph R. Crimont, S.J., Vicar Apostolic of Alaska, and to the Sisters of Providence. In the summer of 1936, O’Flanagan became the leading member of a group of individuals with an interest in health care who actively lobbied the Sisters of Providence to establish a Sisters’ hospital in Anchorage. In the spring and summer of 1937, prominent citizens of Anchorage joined Father O’Flanagan’s lobbying effort, including Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop and physicians I.S. Egan, Howard G. Romig, Joseph R. Romig, and August S. Walkowski.7
In 1915, the Alaska Engineering Commission had made Anchorage their construction headquarters for the Alaska Railroad and had funded several new facilities, including the railroad hospital. The two-story, fifty-bed hospital opened on December 1, 1916. The Alaska Railroad hospital was “a severely plain, white frame building, with a simple pitched roof, perched between A and B Streets on a steep slope overlooking Ship Creek.”8 Although the hospital initially provided satisfactory services, as the Anchorage community expanded, it failed to keep pace with the growing needs of local residents.9 Colonel Otto Ohlson, General Manager of the Alaska Railroad, as part of his attempts to reduce the railroad’s deficit, made it more difficult for the local community to use the railroad hospital. In 1934, he began negotiations with the Sisters of Providence about operating a hospital in Anchorage and taking over the railroad’s patients.10 On June 26, 1935, an editorial in the Anchorage Daily Times stated: “The Anchorage hospital is overflowing with patients. A much larger hospital with more conveniences is sorely needed.”11
There was widespread public support for the establishment of a Sisters of Providence hospital in Anchorage. In 1937, the Catholic Sisters of Providence accepted the responsibility of building a new hospital. The Ninth and L Street Providence Hospital was formally opened under Sister Stanislaus of Jesus, the first Superior for the Sisters of Providence, in Anchorage, on June 29, 1939.12 Through Father O’Flanagan’s efforts and those of others, Anchorage and its hospital were better prepared for an era of sustained growth that would transform the community into Alaska’s largest city and commercial center.
The former “L” Street Providence Hospital building still stands at its original location and is used by the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services. With the city population increasing rapidly, and with the closure of the Alaska Railroad hospital, even the new hospital quickly proved inadequate. Forty-five acres of land for a much larger, modern hospital was acquired near Goose Lake in 1955. The new Providence Hospital was opened in October 1962.13
United Service Organization (USO)
Father O’Flanagan served on the first Committee of Management for Anchorage’s first United Service Organization (USO) headquarters, which was located in a large log cabin at the corner of 5th Avenue and G Street. Opened on September 1, 1941, the Anchorage USO was a welcome place for military service members and their guests, and offered recreational activities, entertainment, socializing, and educational and spiritual services. Through the efforts of the Anchorage civilian population, local military authorities, and the New York USO, a larger, better equipped building was completed in February 1942. The large log structure, capable of holding five hundred people, was on a site leased from the Anchorage Post of the American Legion.14 In addition to becoming firmly involved in Anchorage’s community life through good works, Father O’Flanagan became a U.S. citizen on November 30, 1943.15
Holy Family Church
When Father O’Flanagan arrived in Anchorage, the Holy Family Church was a small wooden structure with a rectory. Father O’Flanagan began raising funds for a new building but it was a slow process during the Great Depression. In the mid-1930s, there was already talk about replacing the small, wooden church. World War II halted O’Flanagan’s drive to build a new, more substantial structure, to accommodate the increasing numbers attending. After the war, a drive to build the church was renewed and construction proceeded slowly as funds were raised. In 1946, construction began on the present church, Holy Family Cathedral (formerly, Holy Family Church), located on the corner of 5th Avenue and H Street. On December 14, 1947, the unfinished basement was ready enough for O’Flanagain to accommodate over two hundred people for the first mass. The one-story church, ornamented with geometric lines, has a square two-story bell tower at the front corner. The church was designed by Seattle architect Augustine A. Porreca in the Romanesque Revival style. In October 1948, the white cement exterior of the building was completed. The parish was able to use the main church, but the interior was not completed until 1952. In 1968, Holy Family Church was recognized as an archdiocesan cathedral.16
Becomes First Bishop of Juneau (1951)
On June 28, 1951, Pope Pius XII established the Diocese of Juneau.17 The Catholic Church recognized that the expanding population of Alaska warranted creating a bishop’s post in the Territory. Father O’Flanagan was ordained and installed as the first bishop of the Diocese of Juneau. He was consecrated as bishop in Anchorage on October 4, 1951, and formally installed on October 7, 1951 in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He celebrated his first mass as bishop in Juneau on October 7, 1951.
Upon his departure from Anchorage, the Anchorage Daily Times editorialized: “His friendliness and humility won him an immediate spot in the hearts of all people. He extended his three-month visit until it ran into years. His flock prospered and grew under his leadership. The magnificent new Church of the Holy Family will ever be a monument in concrete to the inspiration and spiritual leadership he gave.”18
The new Diocese of Juneau was comprised of 70,800 square miles and included southcentral and southeastern Alaska. The remainder of Alaska continued to be administered as a Vicariate Apostolic in the newly created Archdiocese of Seattle. By 1961, the Diocese of Juneau consisted of eleven parishes, fifteen missions, four schools, and four hospitals. There were ten diocesan priests and five Jesuit missionaries to serve the estimated 20,000 Catholics. 19
Bishop O’Flanagan witnessed Governor Mike Stepovich’s swearing in at Fairbanks on June 8, 1957,20 and officiated at Representative Anthony J. “Tony” Dimond’s funeral in Anchorage on June 1, 1953.21 He visited many of the military installations throughout the state and accompanied various Catholic dignitaries on their tours of Alaska.
Bishop O’Flanagan traveled outside of Alaska to various Catholic gatherings. On July 15, 1959, he had an audience in Rome with Pope John XXIII.22 In September 1964 it was announced that he would attend the Vatican Ecumenical Council called by Pope Paul VI.23 In 1960, O’Flanagan gave the baccalaureate sermon at Carroll College in Montana and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the college.24
In August 1968, O’Flanagan retired as bishop for reasons of health. He retired to a Catholic retirement home in La Mesa, California, where he died on December 31, 1972.25 He was buried in the Catholic plot of Anchorage’s Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery.
- Louis L. Renner, S.J., Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska (Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark Company for the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, 2005), 485.
- Mary G. Balcom, The Catholic Church in Alaska (Chicago: Adams Press, 1970), 108.
- Louis L. Renner, S.J., Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska, 485.
- John Bagoy, “Holy Family Cathedral History,” 5, http://www.holyfamilycathedral.org/history.html (accessed November 8, 2014).
- The others were Lawlor J. Seeley, a dentist; Winfield Ervin, cashier at the First National Bank of Anchorage; and Miriam Dickey, a Lathrop Company employee. John C. Shideler and Hal K. Rothman, Pioneering Spirit: The Sisters of Providence in Alaska (Anchorage: Providence Hospital, 1987), 53-54; and “Anchorage Boasts Alaska’s Finest Hospital,” Anchorage Daily Times, June 29, 1939 (Providence Hospital Edition), 1.
- William H. Wilson, Railroad in the Clouds: The Alaska Railroad in the Age of Steam, 1914-1945 (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Company, 1977), 45.
- “Our History in Alaska: Providence Health & Services,” http://alaska.providence.org/choose/mission/Pages/history.aspx (Accessed July 2, 2015).
- William H. Wilson, Railroad in the Clouds: The Alaska Railroad in the Age of Steam, 1914-1945, 237.
- “Anchorage Hospital Needs Urgent [Editorial],” Anchorage Daily Times, June 26, 1935, 2.
- “Anchorage Boasts Alaska’s Finest Hospital,” Anchorage Daily Times, June 29, 1939, 1.
- John C. Shideler and Hal K. Rothman, Pioneering Spirit: The Sisters of Providence in Alaska, 70-79.
- “USO Bows Out,” Forty-Ninth Star (Anchorage), December 28, 1947, 7; and “The Friendly Log Cabin: The U.S.O. in Anchorage, 1941-1945,” November 2000-March 2001, UAA/APU Consortium Library, Archives and Special Collections Department, University of Alaska Anchorage; online exhibit, http://consortiumlibrary.org/archives/Photographs/PhotoExhibits/USOin%20Anchorage.html (accessed November 8, 2014).
- Index card for Robert Dermot O’Flanagan, National Archives Microfilm Publication M1788, Indexes to Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Court for the District, Territory, and State of Alaska (Third Division), 1903-1991, Roll 13, U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992 (Indexed in World Archives Project) [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed November 9, 2014); and Louis L. Renner, S.J., Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska, 486.
- Louis L. Renner, S.J., Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska, 26 and 486; and Alison K. Hoagland, Buildings of Alaska (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 85. See also James L. Carns and Teresa White Carns, Our First 100 Years: Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage, Alaska (Anchorage: Holy Family Cathedral, 2015).
- Father Patrick Travers, compiler, “History of the Diocese of Juneau,” Diocese of Juneau, http:// http://www.dioceseofjuneau.org/history (accessed July 13, 2015).
- Quoted in Louis L. Renner, S.J., Alaskana Catholica: A History of the Catholic Church in Alaska, 486.
- “Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau Created by Pope,” Daily Sitka Sentinel, July 18, 1951, 1.
- “June 8, 1957, Inauguration Day for Gov. Mike Stepovich,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 13, 1957, 6.
- “Many Pay Tribute to Judge Anthony J. Dimond,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 1, 1951, 1.
- “Pope Receives American Bishop,” Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico), July 15, 1959, C-8, [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed November 8, 2014).
- “Three Bishops Will Attend Vatican Council,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 1, 1964, 1, [database on-line]; http://ancestry.com (accessed November 8, 2014).
- “Carroll College Sets Commencement Rites for May 22,” Billings Gazette (Montana), May 13, 1960, morning edition, 8 [database on-line], http://ancestry.com (accessed November 8, 2014).
- “Bishop Ryan Assumes Post for Juneau,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 3, 1968, 6.
This biographical sketch of Father Robert O'Flanagan is based on an essay originally published in John P. Bagoy's Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001), 112. Photographs courtesy of Holy Family Cathedral, Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage, Anchorage, AK. Note: edited, updated, and expanded by Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, July 14, 2015.
Preferred citation: Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, “O’Flanagan, Father Robert Dermot,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, http://www.alaskahistory.org.
Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website, www.cookinlethistory.org.