Edmund Rice was born in Callan, on June 1st, 1762. At an early age, Edmund Rice would have been aware of the poor conditions that Catholics were forced to suffer. Edmund’s parents were aware that it was important for their children to receive a good education, which was denied to most Catholics. Years before Edmund’s birth (under the Penal Laws) many Catholic children were taught in secret – usually by a travelling teacher who would go from farm to farm and teach beside a river or behind a shed. However, it was the poor of Waterford that attracted Edmund’s immediate concern and attention.
To become a priest would have required Edmund, by law, to leave the country. To improve their situation was not going to be easy. It would require changing the very structures of the society that caused and allowed these people to be oppressed. This change could only be achieved by educating and equipping them with skills to survive in society. By 1793, he was determined to open a school for boys. However, at this time circumstances were not in his favour as many of the ruling class considered his thoughts dangerous and radical. Many felt that, if the lot of the poor were improved, their privileged position in society may have weakened. While some Catholic schools were operating, only those families who could afford to pay could gain an education.
Edmund began to devote much of his time to works of charity. On one particular day while Edmund was walking the streets, he came across a boy by the name of Johnny, a black slave whom Edmund saw on a ship moored at the Waterford quay.
Slaves at this time were bought and sold freely by land-holders for a small price and provided cheap labour for their owners. Edmund, in an action typical of his charity, purchased the young boy from the ship’s captain, paid for his schooling, saw him baptised and eventually set him up in a small business. Under Edmund’s influence, Johnny became well-known for his piety and devotion to religion. In 1796, Edmund wrote to Pope Pius VI outlining his plans to provide Catholic education in Ireland, and was encouraged by the pope’s approval. He was convinced that this was what God was calling him to do with his life. And yet, it would have been very easy for Edmund to have ignored this call.
As one of Waterford’s leading businessmen, he was living an extremely comfortable life and already doing great works of charity. What was it that led him to turn his back on his work and begin a new direction in life?
Four main reasons seem to have influenced Edmund’s decision:
- The works of charity in which Edmund was already engaged brought him into contact with the young boys on the streets for whom nothing was being done.
- His brother, John, and his step-sister, Joan Murphy, had advised Edmund to do something for the poor of Ireland and not to lock himself away in a monastery in Rome.
- In 1797 the bishop of Waterford, Bishop Hussey, wrote a pastoral letter to all the members of his diocese stating that the situation of the poor was due to the British government and its restrictions on education, on employment and on the inability of the Catholic population to acquire property. The pastoral letter made it clear to Edmund that the disadvantaged position of the Catholic population was due to their lack of education.
- Finally, we cannot underestimate the significant influence of the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit on Edmund’s decision. The death of his wife had brought him closer to God through prayer and the care of his -daughter had shown him the need to care for the young. With his spiritual life deepening, his compassion widened to include the children of the poor.
For these reasons, Edmund began to plan a way to make this dream a reality. The children of more affluent Catholic parents were being sent to the Bible Schools where some were being converted to the Protestant faith.
To counter this, the Presentation Sisters, founded by Nano Nagle, opened a school for girls in Waterford in 1798. Edmund encouraged the sisters in their work and his generous financial support was a major reason for their convent and school being such a success. Seeing the positive results that the sisters were having on the young girls, Edmund began to plan for a way to help the boys. Having sold his business and arranged for his step-sister to return with his daughter to Callan, Edmund moved from his comfortable home in Arundel Lane to a two-storey stable, which he converted into a school, in New Street. He transformed the ground floor into classrooms while his own living quarters were upstairs.
In 1802, Edmund Rice was able to open his first school. The boys who attended this first school were unruly and unaccustomed to discipline. As word of the school spread, the number of boys who attended grew rapidly.
Edmund employed two assistants to help with the teaching, but, despite Edmund’s offer to double their pay, both men left as they felt the boys were impossible to teach! Edmund refused to accept failure and remained strong. Eventually two young men from Callan, Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, joined Edmund at New Street where they were not just willing to help with the teaching, but were also interested in joining a religious congregation that he wished to establish. Thus discipline and hope were brought to the boys who were considered ‘lost causes’ by the people of Waterford.
The school at New Street proved to be a great success. However, Edmund realised that the site would not be adequate as a permanent school structure and so set about building a new school outside the walls of the city. This larger school, built in Barrack Street, was on the site of the Faha Chapel where Edmund had frequently attended Mass and received the sacraments.
Few of Edmund’s friends could understand the sacrifice he was making in devoting himself to the poor. Living at New Street had seen Edmund and his two ‘brothers’ live a life removed from possessions and wealth. They dedicated themselves fully to God by proclaiming the message of the gospel to the young Catholic boys in the school. To change his life so much and give all he had to others was an amazing effort for a man at the age of 40 years. Determined in his vision, Edmund had not only laid the foundations for a large new school but had also begun to establish a new religious congregation, dedicated to the education of young Catholic boys.
The Barrack Street site would consist of a school and a monastery so that the community life Edmund had begun to practise with Grosvenor and Finn – teaching, spiritual reading and prayer – could continue. In 1803, Edmund and his companions moved to the new building. Bishop Hussey was asked to bless the area and invited to choose a name for the new school. Noticing that the school was on an elevated site just outside the walls of the city, he was reminded of Mount Sion in Jerusalem and so felt that Mount Sion would be a most appropriate name. Although Edmund had no previous experience as a teacher, he provided an up-to-date education for his pupils. The boys sitting at desks capable mostly of accommodating 12 pupils, spent their time learning how to read, write and complete basic mathematics.
The older students also learned book-keeping, geography, trigonometry and navigation. They began their studies by writing on pieces of slate. To help the boys learn even more, Edmund set up a lending library at Mount Sion and so boys were able to improve their skills and help their parents by reading to them at home.
All items that were required for the boys’ education, for example:- writing utensils and books, were supplied free of charge by Edmund Rice. But Edmund’s charity did not end here. He also fed and clothed them. Many of the boys who attended Mount Sion wore clothes that were tattered and provided little protection against the harsh Irish weather.
To counter this, Edmund built a tailor shop at the school where new clothes were made for the boys who needed them. Below the tailor shop, Edmund set up a bakery so that each day he could supply the boys with a nourishing meal of bread and milk. The number of students grew rapidly as parents recognised the positive effects that the school was having on the local youths.
With the support of Bishop Power, the new bishop after the death of Hussey, Edmund and his companions decided to bind themselves to traditional vows in a ceremony of religious profession.
On 15 August 1808, the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, Edmund and his ‘brothers’ attended Mass at the Presentation Convent, and wearing simple black habits, dedicated themselves, with the approval of Rome, by the profession of religious vows. As his patron, Edmund took the name Ignatius after Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order.
In 1820, under the authority of the bishop, a new official congregation of brothers was formed, taking the name, ‘The Society of the Presentation’. Edmund, now 58 years of age, made his final vows and was elected Superior General of the Congregation that would be called “The Christian Brothers”.
This was a significant day for Edmund. His dream of founding a religious congregation to care for boys had become a reality. For Edmund Ignatius Rice, the task now was to ensure that the work continued.
The Christian Brothers’ first school outside Waterford, opened in neighbouring Carrick-on-Suir. Edmund’s work with the poor was all embracing and he was hoping for his fellow brothers to join him in educating the youth out of their poverty, into the full richness of their Catholic heritage.
The work of the brothers saw them soon establish themselves in other areas of Ireland, being invited by the bishops who heard of the work they were doing, with the poor of Waterford. Edmund transferred the Christian Brothers’ headquarters from Mount Sion to Dublin in 1828 after a request from Dublin’s Archbishop Murray, who believed the work of the brothers would be best highlighted in the country’s capital.
This led to the opening of the North Richmond Street School which had the honour of Daniel O’Connell – the first Irish Catholic to be elected to the British Parliament – laying the foundation stone.
Whilst living at Mount Sion, he spent most of his time visiting many of the brothers’ communities sharing his words of wisdom and encouragement with his colleagues or the trainee brothers. He took great pleasure in walking through the gardens of Mount Sion and made the occasional visit into the classrooms to see the students. The opening of the many schools throughout Ireland and England began to place great strains on Edmund’s finances.
The new law forbidding religious orders from accepting new members was making it increasingly difficult for the brothers to function. As leader (Superior General) of the Congregation, Edmund was extremely concerned with this situation. This dynamic and courageous man was seeing his dream slip away and felt that he had let down his fellow brothers who had entrusted their lives to him by joining the Congregation. Opposition was coming from a number of areas over the way the brothers operated.
Whilst the government did not attempt to suppress this illegal organisation, the local bishops of the different dioceses in which the brothers were working opposed their independence.
They wanted complete control of all matters in their diocese and stood firm, convinced that they should run their own schools. In an effort to overcome these difficulties, Edmund felt that there was a need to set up pay-schools. There were some Catholics who could afford to pay a small amount for their son’s education which would provide enough money for the existing free schools to continue. While Edmund thought this proposal would be overwhelmingly accepted, a number of his brothers disagreed. They felt schools where religion, seen as vital to the complete teaching of the boys, was highlighted by the prayers recited regularly each day in class.
While Edmund and others felt that this system was an attempt by the government to weaken the position of Catholics, he allowed six of his schools to participate in the system on a five year trial basis. With the brothers preferring their own type of education, rather than accept the money given by the government, they pulled out of the scheme in 1836. Edmund Rice had worked tirelessly to establish his organisation of Christian Brothers. Placing his own life in the hands of God, he devoted all he had to help those less fortunate than himself. Even in his later life, he continued to visit prisoners in gaol and offer them comfort.
By 1838, at the age of 76 and with his health beginning to fail, Edmund decided it was time to step aside and allow one of his fellow brothers to take on the leadership of the Congregation. Brother Paul Riordan was chosen as Edmund’s successor and while this allowed the brothers to continue in their ministry, it also led to a period of uncertainty and anxiety for Edmund. In his final years, Edmund was confined to a wheel-chair. Many of the brothers, who considered it an honour to spend their time with him, recalled the deep devotion that Edmund had to the Rosary, the writings of St Teresa of Avila, and reading the Bible. With his eyesight failing him, one of the brothers would read passages from the Scriptures as Edmund listened and prayed.
By the end of 1841, Edmund was seriously ill. Brother Riordan informed all of the communities stating that Edmund was confined to bed and feared that death would come soon. Edmund’s health improved temporarily but by the middle of 1842 he was in a state of semi-coma. The people of Waterford praying constantly for Edmund were informed that ‘the walking saint’, as many called him, was close to death. At 4 a.m. on 29 August 1844, the nurse, Katie Lloyd, who had been employed to care for Edmund, called the brothers to Edmund’s room as he had suffered a stroke and was having trouble breathing. They joined together in prayer, reading some of Edmund’s favourite passages from the Bible. Edmund Rice died at 11 o’clock that morning.
Edmund was buried on Saturday, 31st August, in the Community cemetary in the grounds of Mount Sion. For years a simple cross marked the grave of the great man. In 1846 a Memorial chapel was solemnly blessed in Mount Sion “As a tribute of gratitude for the services and respect for the virtues of Edmund Ignatius Rice” and this chapel is still the Monastery Chapel. In 1944 the remains of Edmund Rice were exhumed and placed in a beautiful Mausoleum in the grounds of Mount Sion. Owing to the Owing to the growing number of pilgrims from all over the world to visit the tomb of the Founder, the Brothers and their friends raised the money for building the church to hold the remains of the one they loved.
The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a place of prayer and devotion for the people of Waterford and a place of pilgrimage for many thousands from all parts of the world.
Edmund Rice was Beatified in Rome on 6th October, 1996.