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Who is Edmund Rice?

Edmund RiceEdmund Rice was born into a farming family, under the shadow of the Penal laws, on June 1st 1762, at Westcourt, Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland. He attended the commercial academy in Kilkenny for about two years after secretly receiving his elementary education at the local ‘hedge school’ in Callan.

In 1779 Edmund was apprenticed to his uncle, Michael Rice in Waterford city. The business involved supplying all the needs of ships that plied their trade across the Atlantic between Europe and the eastern coast of North America.

By his late twenties, through his entrepreneurial skills, he had earned enough money to make himself and his family comfortable for life.

Heartbreak

Edmund married Mary Elliot, the daughter of a prosperous Waterford businessman, in 1786. After three short years of marriage, Mary suffered a tragic accident, gave birth to a disabled daughter, also called Mary, and died shortly after. Edmund was devastated. After a period of reflection he turned to his special vocation, which was to provide dignity for the poor, especially through education.

Business Man Responds to the Call of the Poor

So, as a 40-year old widower and a successful businessman in Waterford on Ireland’s southeast coast, Edmund Rice changed course radically. He was a rich merchant living in comfortable circumstances, but he was conscious of the hardship suffered by poorer people. Realising the effects deprivation had, especially on the young people of the city, he responded to their needs. He sold off his business interests and started a school for poor boys in a converted stable. He and his assistants lived in some rooms above the makeshift classrooms. In 1802 Edmund was joined by two companions, Thomas Grosvener and Patrick Finn, and the three began to live a form of community life in rooms over the Stable School in New Street.

First School 1802

For Edmund Rice, however, his teaching apostolate was only at a stage of germination. His sights were set on a fully-fledged Religious Congregation, governed by traditional vows and recognised by the Holy See in Rome. He took a crucial step towards this end when, in June 1802 he commenced the building of a monastery on an elevated site in a working-class district in Waterford City. The building, again funded out of Edmund’s private resources, was large and comprised living accommodation and a school. There were two classrooms on the ground floor and, overhead, seven bedrooms which were small and sparsely furnished. They had wooden beds fitted into wall recesses; an alcove served as a wardrobe and the furniture consisted of a table and a stool. Pictured here is a well-researched model of that original building. The school at Mount Sion was built to accommodate about one hundred boys in each classroom. The Brother teaching the class was helped by the older boy ‘monitors’, who examined the homework and the catechism. All the boys were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. With the more senior pupils other useful subjects were added, like bookkeeping, geography and navigation. The boys received special preparation for first Holy Communion and Confirmation. Each school had a library. The boys brought books home to read them to their parents who were unable to read. In this way their parents received education as well. Twenty years after the death of Edmund a beautiful monastery was built at Mount Sion in 1864. It has served as the residence of the Brothers since then. Today the Primary and Secondary Schools are on the other side of this building.

Bake House and Tailor’s Shop

At Mount Sion Edmund built a bake house and tailor’s shop. The children in the school were hungry. Their parents were too poor to feed them. On arrival at school each morning the boys were given freshly baked bread. This gave them the energy necessary to do their school work properly. Besides feeding the boys, Edmund noticed that the children suffered a lot from the cold, due to scanty clothing. Tailors were employed to make suits for the boys. A lady was engaged on a full time basis making shirts. The tradition of feeding and clothing the children was carried out in all the Brothers’ schools. Visitors to Mount Sion are invited to visit the old bake house and tailor’s shop, a true monument of Edmund’s charity and his compassion for people, especially the poor.

Something New Emerging

Edmund and his companions worked and prayed together, sharing their lives and possessions in mutual support as a community. They shared a common vision where they combined a semi-monastic life with the hard work of teaching unruly boys under primitive conditions. They were focused on the poor and especially the young. The Presentation Sisters had already opened a school in Waterford city and were educating the girls. In 1808, following the example of the Presentation Sisters, Edmund and his companions took vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and devoted themselves to the education of poor boys. At this time he and his companions were known as the Society of the Presentation. In the early days, when Edmund first began to attract followers to his way of life, they formed themselves into little groups of laymen. They lived together in community, and began to follow an adaptation of the Presentation Sisters’ Rule from 1809 onwards. It helped to guide their first faltering steps along the path of religious life.

Education Was Illegal

All of Edmund’s educational activities were illegal in the eyes of the ‘authorities’ in Ireland at the time. His chief concern was for the poor, mainly boys and young men and he identified education as the key to survival. Most Irish Catholics were effectively cut off from education and consequently cut off from social and political progress. By founding schools and teaching congregations, Edmund Rice, like Daniel O’Connell, was a liberator. That is one reason why O’Connell greatly admired the man he called “patriarch of the monks of the West.”. Appropriately, therefore, one of Edmund’s first Dublin Schools, namely O’Connell School in North Richmond Street, was named after Daniel O’Connell. Edmund sent Brothers to open schools in many parts of Ireland. Schools were opened in England in 1825, India (1841), Australia (1842), USA (1843), New Zealand (1876), South Africa (1897), Rome (1900), Canada (1913), China 1920 and South America 1948. Today the Brothers of Edmund Rice are working in 30 countries across five continents. Besides education the Brothers encourage the local people to develop their own skills and God-given talents and to become self-sufficient.

Edmund’s Prayer Life

In the words of eyewitnesses Edmund’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was intense. He received Holy Communion very frequently. When he founded his congregation he encouraged the Brothers to assist at Mass daily. It was at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that Edmund got the courage and confidence in God to face all difficulties. As a young business man Edmund attended mass here at St. Patrick’s Church, just 200 metres from his place of work in the centre of Waterford city. The church, as seen in this photograph, has changed very little and is still in use today. Edmund was a frequent visitor to this small church. From the beginning each Brothers’ house had a chapel where Mass was celebrated and the Blessed Sacrament reserved. Edmund visited the Blessed Sacrament every day. In the schools he encouraged the boys to do likewise.
Difficulties

Each new foundation presented Edmund with new challenges and difficulties. He had spent all his money in Waterford. There was nothing left for foundations elsewhere. Most of the schools were in poor districts. The Brothers suffered great hardship from poverty. However, Edmund encouraged them in their vocation. They experienced difficulties while teaching the boys. However, the great improvement in the children made their sacrifices worthwhile. Some of the Brothers’ schools were attached to the National Board of Education in 1832. Within a few years they were withdrawn. When asked how the Brothers could survive without money Edmund replied, “Providence will be our inheritance.” This prophecy was proved true.

The Death of Edmund Rice

In 1838 Edmund Rice retired as Superior General of the Order and returned from Dublin to live in Waterford. He was then 76 years of age and suffering from painful arthritis. Besides physical pain he suffered a lot from misunderstandings. Edmund spent the last two years confined to his room suffering from periods of memory loss. In his lucid moments he loved to read the Bible and prayer remained central to his life. Edmund died on Thursday, 29th August 1844. He was buried at Mount Sion in the heart of Waterford city. His death led to widespread sorrow in Waterford. The people felt they had lost their greatest benefactor.
Two New Congregations

In the early days, when Edmund first began to attract followers to his way of life, they formed themselves into a small group of companions. They lived together in community, and followed an adapted version of the Presentation Sisters’ Rule. The Brothers took vows for the first time, according to the Rules and Constitutions of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Presentation, on 15th August 1808. The Presentation Sisters had been founded in 1775 by Nano Nagle. With the success of the schools and the growth in the number of Brothers, Edmund applied to the Pope for the approval of his Congregation. On 5th September 1820, Pope Pius VII approved the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The granting of this Apostolic Brief in 1820, allowing the infant Congregation to become an Apostolic Institute, was a defining moment for all of the early brothers. In January 1822, at Mount Sion, Edmund was elected first Superior General of the Christian Brothers. However, Edmund Rice’s founding charism actually gave birth to two Congregations, the Congregation of Christian Brothers and the Congregation of Presentation Brothers. Prior to pontifical approval of the Congregation, each new community was under the authority of the local bishop. Edmund’s wish was to have a central government so brothers could be moved from place to place, enabling them to freely expand in answer to developing needs. Some brothers wished to remain subject to the local bishop in the Diocese of Cork. They continued to follow the Presentation rule which Edmund and his companions had initially adopted and became known as the Presentation Brothers Congregation. It might be noted that all of Edmund’s educational activities were illegal in the eyes of the ‘authorities’ in Ireland at the time. Most Irish Catholics were effectively cut off from education and consequently cut off from social and political progress. Arguably by founding schools and teaching congregations, Edmund Rice, like Daniel O’Connell, was a liberator. That is one reason why O’Connell greatly admired the man he called “patriarch of the monks of the West.”. Appropriately, therefore, one of Edmund’s first Dublin Schools, namely O’Connell School in North Richmond Street, was named after Daniel O’Connell. Edmund sent Brothers to open schools in many parts of Ireland. Schools were also opened in England in 1825, India (1841), Australia (1842), USA (1843), New Zealand (1876), South Africa (1897), Rome (1900), Canada (1913), China 1920 and South America 1948. Today the Brothers of Edmund Rice are working in 30 countries across five continents.

Each new foundation presented Edmund with new challenges and difficulties. He had spent all his money in Waterford. There was nothing left for foundations elsewhere. Most of the schools were in poor districts. The Brothers suffered great hardship from poverty. However, Edmund encouraged them in their vocation. However, the great improvement in the children made their sacrifices worthwhile. Where did Edmund get his inspiration? What kept him going in the difficult and anxious times as his Congregation grew and more and more schools were opened? Put simply, it was his faith in God. In the words of eyewitnesses Edmund’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was intense. He received Holy Communion very frequently. When he founded his congregation he encouraged the Brothers to assist at Mass daily. It was at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that Edmund got the courage and confidence in God to face all difficulties. From the beginning each Brothers’ house had a chapel where Mass was celebrated. It was also from his Brothers in faith that he got the strength to do the great work that he did. That for Brothers today is at the ‘heart of being Brother’. Mutual support, prayer together and working together are central to this day to all that the congregation seeks to do in our world. In 1838 Edmund Rice retired as Superior General of the Order and returned from Dublin to live in Waterford. He was then 76 years of age and suffering from painful arthritis. Edmund spent the last two years confined to his room suffering from periods of memory loss. In his lucid moments he loved to read the Bible and prayer remained central to his life. Edmund died on Thursday, 29th August 1844. He was buried at Mount Sion in the heart of Waterford city. His death led to widespread sorrow in Waterford. The people felt they had lost their greatest benefactor. At the start of the third millennium the followers of Nano Nagle and Edmund Rice are again working in close collaboration. The spirit of partnership between the Presentation Sisters, Presentation Brothers and Christian Brothers is in evidence in various joint programmes and courses that they run in Ireland and abroad. On 6th October 1996, Pope John Paul II beatified Edmund Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. He was declared ‘Blessed’

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