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Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice

Edmund Rice was born in Westcourt, Callan, Co. Kilkenny in 1762. There were seven boys and two girls in the family. It comes as a surprise that a Catholic family could be prosperous in these days but they had a lease of a good sized farm and were industrious people. In view of his future work in education it was fortunate that he received a very good education himself, first at a local hedge school and then at a private secondary school in Kilkenny.

He was apprenticed to his uncle, Michael Rice, in Waterford City at the age of 17. In the 18th century Catholics were debarred from owning land, from the professions and from all offices of the State but the one area in which they could be involved was business. Waterford was then the second largest port in Ireland with an expanding trade with England, France and Spain and had very special trading links across the Atlantic with Newfoundland. His uncle was involved in providing food and services for the crews and passengers of the ships trading in and out of the port of Waterford. Michael Rice became a very prosperous businessman and his business expanded even more when it was handed over to his nephew, Edmund Ignatius Rice. His great wealth was later to be used in transforming the lives of countless young boys.

At the age of 25 he married Mary Elliot and was a widower two years later when his young wife died as a result of a fall from a horse. He was left with a handicapped daughter, Mary.

Edmund called in his step-sister Joan Murphy to help him care for his disabled daughter; he developed the business which he inherited from his uncle in 1795.

Having properly cared for his daughter, in 1802 Edmund began a night school for the uneducated boys from the quays of Waterford. His deep desire was to found a religious order of men who would educate these poor boys so that they could live with dignity and high self-esteem. But his volunteer assistants could not stick it. Neither could the paid teachers he later employed. Just when his spirits were lowest, and he looked a failure to all his business colleagues, two men from his native Callan joined him not only to educate these unruly boys but also to join Edmund in his plan to found a religious order. To do such a thing was contrary to the law. Nevertheless Edmund and his growing number of companions went ahead and in 1808 seven of them took religious vows under Bishop Power of Waterford. They were called Presentation Brothers. This was the first congregation of men to be founded in Ireland and one of the few ever founded in a Church by a layman. Edmund had in the meantime built a substantial school out of his own money, but it was already proving too small for the many boys who flocked to him for an education.

Gradually an extraordinary transformation took place in the “quay kids” of Waterford. Edmund and his Brothers educated them, clothed and fed them. Other Bishops in Ireland supplied him with men whom he prepared for religious life and teaching. In this way the Presentation Brothers spread throughout Ireland. However, the groups in separate dioceses were not under Edmund’s control but the Bishop’s. This created problems when Brothers were needed to be transferred. So Edmund sought and ultimately obtained approval from Pope Pius VII for his Brothers to be made into a pontifical congregation with Edmund as Superior General; he was then able to move Brothers to wherever they were most needed. From this time on they were called Christian Brothers. By 1825 there were 30 Christian Brothers working in 12 towns and cities and educating 5,500 boys, free of charge. Many of these boys were also being clothed and fed.

Edmund’s life was steeped in a spirituality that was strong and practical: he was forever caring for the poor in the wretched circumstances of their lives, for he believed there was a great need “to give to the poor in handfuls”. Many people, both men and women, from many cultures, young and old were helped and given hope and purpose and a new footing in life. He and his Brothers even cared for the inmates of the jails of Waterford. Edmund was privileged to comfort and accompany many a condemned man to the gallows. The poor never forgot his love for them and saw Edmund as “a man raised up by God”.

Edmund endured many and severe trials and in 1829 it seemed the Christian Brothers were going to be suppressed by the law of the land; they faced extinction. This did not eventuate. An even worse trial came to Edmund personally when some of his own Brothers tried to undermine his work. Fortunately they did not succeed. Edmund had given his Brothers as their motto a text from the Book of Job that had meant so much to him in his life: “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord forever”. Job1:21.

In 1838, at the age of 76, he retired from leadership of the congregation, and went to live in Waterford where he died on 29 August 1844.

Edmund Rice, the astute businessman, loving husband, devoted father, grieving widower, innovative educator, courageous founder, compassionate champion of the poor, Edmund Rice was declared to be Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice by Pope John Paul II in Rome on the 6th of October 1996.

We have in the top floor of the Bishop’s Palace an exhibition of memorabilia and artefacts of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice.

His Feast Day in the Catholic Church is today the 5th of May.