EDMUND IGNATIUS RICE
Formation of the Christian Brothers
Early life and career
Edmund Rice was born to Robert Rice and Margaret Rice (née Tierney) on the farming property of "Westcourt", in Callan, County Kilkenny. Edmund was the fourth of seven sons, although he also had two step-sisters, Joan and Jane Murphy, the offspring of his mother's first marriage. At this time, Irish Catholics were oppressed by anti-Catholic Penal Laws which were enacted and enforced by the Protestant-dominated Irish parliament. Rice's education, like that of every other Irish Catholic of the day, was greatly compromised by the 1709 amendment to the Popery Act, which decreed that any public or private instruction in the Catholic faith would render teachers liable to prosecution, and was not reformed until 1782. In this environment, hedge schools proliferated. The boys of the Rice family obtained an education at home through Patrick Grace, a member of the small community of Augustinian friars in Callan.
The Rices were quite well off by the standards of the day. As a young man, Rice spent two years at a school in Kilkenny to complete his education. His uncle Michael owned a merchant business in the nearby port town of Waterford. In 1779 Edmund was apprenticed to him, moving into a house in the market parish of Ballybricken, entering the business of trading livestock and other supplies, and the supervising of loading of victuals onto ships bound for the British colonies. Michael Rice died in 1785, and this business was passed into Edmund's ownership.In 1787 he married a young woman (Mary Elliott, the daughter of a Waterford tanner). Little is known about their married life, and Mary died in January 1789 following an accident, possibly by a fever that set in afterwards. Pregnant at the time, a daughter was delivered on Mary's deathbed. The daughter (also named Mary) was born handicapped. Edmund Rice was left a widower, responsible for an infant daughter in delicate health.
Vocation and beginnings
Rice devoted himself to prayer and charitable work, particularly with the poor and marginalised of Waterford. In 1802, when he established a makeshift school in a converted stable in New Street, Waterford, he found the children were so difficult to manage that the teachers resigned. This prompted him to sell his thriving business to another prominent Roman Catholic merchant and devote himself to training teachers who would dedicate their lives to prayers and to teaching the children free of charge. Despite the difficulties involved, Edmund's classes were so popular that another temporary school had to be set up on another of his properties, this time in nearby Stephen Street.
The turning point of Rice's ministry was the arrival of two young men, Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, from his hometown of Callan. They came to him with the desire of joining a religious congregation, but had not decided which they would join. As it turned out, they remained to teach at Edmund Rice's school, and formed their own religious community. The subsequent success of the New Street school led to a more permanent building, christened 'Mount Sion', where construction began on June 1, 1802. The Mount Sion monastery was officially blessed by Bishop Thomas Hussey on June 7, 1803. Since the schoolhouse was not yet completed, Rice, Finn, and Grosvenor took up residence but walked each day from Mt Sion to their schools on New Street and Stephen Street. On May 1, 1804, the adjoining school was opened and blessed by Hussey's successor, Bishop John Power, and their pupils transferred to the new building.All of Edmund's educational activities were illegal in the eyes of the authorities in Ireland, in that no Roman Catholic was allowed "to fund, endow or establish any school, academy or college". Nevertheless, it appears that his request to the local Church of Ireland bishop for a school licence was eventually granted, thanks to the appeals of some of Rice's more influential friends.
Foundation of the Christian Brothers and Presentation Brothers
In 1808, seven of the staff including Edmund Rice, took religious vows under Bishop Power of Waterford. Following the example of Nano Nagle's Presentation Sisters, they were called Presentation Brothers. This was the first congregation of men to be founded in Ireland and one of the few ever founded by a layman. Gradually a transformation had taken place amongst the "quay kids" of Waterford, largely attributed to the work of Edmund and his Brothers, who educated, clothed and fed the boys. Other bishops in Ireland supplied Edmund Rice with men whom he prepared for religious life and a life of teaching. In this way the Presentation Brothers spread throughout Ireland.
However, the communities were under the control of various diocesan bishops rather than Rice, and this created problems when Brothers were needed to be transferred from one school to another. Rice sought, and ultimately obtained, approval from Pope Pius VII for the community to be made into a pontifical congregation with Rice as Superior General; he was then able to move brothers to wherever they were most needed. In the 1820s further difficulties emerged owing to the expansion of the society and it becoming two distinct congregations. From this time on they were called Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. The motto of the Christian Brothers was: "The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord forever”. Job1:21.
In 1828, the North Richmond Street house and schools in Dublin were established by Rice, with the foundation stone laid by the politician Daniel O’Connell. The building housed the brothers’ headquarters for many years and the present residence incorporates the original house built by Rice, who lived here for several years beginning in 1831.
Retirement and death
In February 1838, Rice left the North Richmond Street community and returned to Mount Sion in Waterford. Aged seventy-six, and by now in poor health, he wrote to the different communities calling for a General Chapter to elect a new superior-general. The Chapter, which opened on July 24, 1838, resulted in the election of Br. Paul Riordan as Rice's successor.
From this time on, Rice spent an increasing proportion of his time at Mount Sion and the adjoining school, showing a continued interest in the pupils and their teachers. He would also take a short walk each day on the slope of Mount Sion, but his increasingly painful arthritis led the community superior, Br. Joseph Murphy, to purchase a wheelchair for his benefit. Rice's health took a turn for the worse at Christmas time, 1841, and even though expectations of his imminent death did not come to pass, he was increasingly confined to his room. After living in a near-comatose state for more than two years (in the constant care of a nurse since May 1842), Rice died at 11am on August 29, 1844 at Mount Sion, Waterford, where his remains lie in a casket to this day. Large crowds filled the streets around his house in Dublin to honour him.
Beatification and legacy
The first attempt to introduce Rice's cause to sainthood was in 1911 by Brother Mark Hill who travelled Waterford and other parts of Ireland collecting statements from people as to why they thought Rice should be made a saint, but very little progress was made. The cause was taken up by Pius Noonan, who was the superior general at the time. With the help of Monsignor Giovanni Batista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), the cause was officially opened in Dublin in 1957.
In 1976 the Historical Commission of the Dublin Archdiocese recommended that Rice's cause be brought to Rome, and the Vatican agreed to look into the cause. Three brothers had the burden of investigating archives and collecting evidence on why Rice should be declared a saint: Mark Hill, David Fitzpatrick and Columba Normoyle. After the commission's unanimous approval, Pope John Paul II declared Rice worthy of his cause in 1993.
On April 2, 1993, the Pope John Paul II declared Edmund Rice to be venerable and two years later approved a miracle attributed to his intercession. The miracle occurred in 1976, when Kevin Ellison of Newry, had been given only 48 hours to live due to complications from a gangrenous colon, and an apparent lack of viable colon tissue (a conclusion reached by five doctors after hours in surgery). A family friend, Christian Brother Laserian O'Donnell, gave Ellison's parents a relic of Edmund Rice. Many friends prayed for a miracle through the intercession of Rice and a special Mass was offered for Ellison's recovery. Only the relic of Edmund Rice was placed at the bedside of the dying man who survived the 48 hour period during which he was supposed to die, and more besides. Upon investigation, surgeons discovered a considerable length of previously undetected colon. Ellison fully recovered after a few weeks. These events paved the way for Rice's beatification on October 6, 1996 and he become known as Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice. His official feast day is May 5.
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