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John Flanagan Deirdre Ward Deacon NJ 2
Dec 11, 2018

John Flanagan: A Deacon of Light

By Felecia Stratton

John Flanagan Deirdre Ward Deacon NJ 2

“The authentic joy in life comes from helping others,” said Deacon John P. Flanagan. And he has spent the past 89 years of his life embodying that philosophy.

Flanagan’s achievements illustrate a life of service: from conducting campaigns for churches, schools, and parish centers as founder and president of Catholic Church Campaigns to serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War to climbing into the town dumpster to retrieve his daughter’s engagement card envelopes that accidentally ended up in the trash.

“To this day, I run into complete strangers whose lives he has touched, whether in regard to a consultation, baptism, assisting with a first holy communion, a confirmation or a marriage,” said his daughter Deirdre Flanagan-Ward.

Not only is Flanagan generous with his time, he also has exhibited a strong work ethic throughout his life. Born to immigrant parents in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a mid-sized town nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, his work ethic was ingrained at an early age when he delivered newspapers, worked at a butcher store, and lit weekend fires for his Orthodox neighbors while attending Cathedral School with his two brothers and sister.

That work ethic is woven through his multifaceted career both in the insurance industry and as a church deacon. In 1957, Flanagan took his first job in insurance as an adjuster, and then as a claim manager for Sentry Insurance. He later served as program director in the insurance division for the American Management Association, and was co-founder and president of Management Seminars.  He retired as the vice president of administration for PRUCO, a Prudential Insurance Company subsidiary.

Devoting long hours to his insurance career did not deter Flanagan from immersing himself in the church and other activities he was passionate about. “He was always very active, and able to balance career, church, and family,” said Flanagan-Ward. “And he always found time to be of assistance to others in the community. He is the one who listened to problems when others didn’t care or couldn’t find the time.”

Through it all, Flanagan maintained his great sense of humor. Blessed with the gift of the Irish, he was always ready with a funny story and a good joke, “the cornier the better,” he said.

It was at the church that Flanagan found a fulfilling way to help others. He has served as a deacon at St. Catherine’s Parish in Holmdel for the past 37 years. Prior to that he was director of stewardship for the Diocese of Trenton, where he was ordained a permanent deacon in 1981. In 2012, Flanagan was presented with the Papal Benemerenti Medal at the Trenton Eucharistic Congress. He also is founder and president of Catholic Church Campaigns.

“He is the type of deacon who referenced his own life as a married man of the cloth,” recalled Flanagan-Ward. “He used his own children as examples during his Sunday sermons when discussing the challenges and difficulties everyone faces when raising a family.”

His kindness and love of faith and family is always evident. “He is the kind of man who cut out my engagement announcement from the newspaper and saved it for me,” Flanagan-Ward said.

Despite a busy schedule, Flanagan still found time to pursue other passions. “My favorite avocations are storytelling humor and writing,” he said. He is a storyteller for the Jersey Shore Storytelling Group, and a published author of two books: Managing Your Time, Energy and Talent in Ministry and The Joy of Being a Deacon. Flanagan also lectured extensively at business, social, church, and diocesan seminars on subjects ranging from spirituality to motivation and management.

Despite his long list of personal accomplishments, Flanagan’s greatest joy is his family. He and his wife Eileen currently live in Red Bank. They have five children and 18 grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 through the mid-30s.

Flanagan finds visiting with his grandchildren a true delight.  “Each one has a different personality, which makes for interesting conversations,” he noted.

The feeling is mutual. His grandchildren affectionately refer to him as “The Granddad.” They enjoy listening to his stories about growing up in Altoona, and how his parents “made good” in the community.  They also enjoy the cards he sends to them, and to his children, with little notes of inspiration and love.

In a world where helping others sometimes is forgotten, Deacon John P. Flanagan serves as a true inspiration.

A Blessed Life

Deacon John P. Flanagan received many blessings in his life, but the one he is most grateful for is his wife Eileen. “I met this redhead in Toronto, Canada in July 1957, and in the subsequent months I proposed to Eileen Donohoe on three occasions,” Flanagan recalled.

Eileen finally accepted his marriage offer with the proviso that he fly to her hometown of Dublin for the wedding. “The seven-hour KLM flight seemed endless,” he said. “Upon arrival at the Dublin airport, security temporarily detained me on suspicion of being a member of the outlawed Irish Republican Army. They interrogated me for one hour before I was completely vindicated.”

Eileen and her family were relieved to finally greet “a very shaken young Yank,” he recalled, and the couple were married in St. Kevin’s Church in July 1958.

“After our enjoyable honeymoon throughout Ireland, we decided to cancel our return KLM flight home and book passage on a Cunard ship instead,” Flanagan said. “On our first day at sea, we learned that the KLM flight we canceled crashed over Shannon with no survivors.

“I thanked God for that fortuitous decision and still do,” he noted. “It proved to be just one of the many blessings we, as a family, received throughout our lives.”