Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice – businessman, educator, founder, and philanthropist - was born on 1 June 1762 in Callan, Co Kilkenny, Ireland, the fourth of seven sons of Robert Rice and Margaret Tierney. He enjoyed an upwardly-mobile childhood and adolescence spent during the very gradual lessening of the Penal Laws: an easing which allowed him to acquire an education at a local high school in Kilkenny City. The example of generosity towards the poor and needy which he learned from his parents and siblings and from local Augustinian friar Patrick Grace helped form his character with values of diligence and concern for the misfortunate which would inspire his vocation in later life amongst the dispossessed, marginalised, and delinquent youth of his adopted Waterford, the city to which he moved as a young man apprenticed to his uncle’s shipbuilding business, which carried with it great financial responsibly. Edmund was already well-known for the charity which he extended towards the city’s poorer residents, a charity which found its practical expression in his making regular donations to the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Association – and for his engagement to a fashionable young woman named Mary Elliott, with whom he intended to start a family! This was not to be as he would have wished, however, for Mary died in 1789 following a carriage-accident, and the young widower of just four years’ marriage, having placed his handicapped daughter, also named Mary, in the care of other family-members, reassessed his life in accordance with these circumstances – and, with no recorded evidence to suggest that he considered remarriage, cultivated a desire to serve God and neighbour in the Consecrated Life, familiar as he was with the Scriptures and with the life and times of St Ignatius of Loyola – not the Contemplative Life, as he sought, to reprimand - What! Would you bury yourself in a cell on the continent...? - but the Apostolic Life, as he was advised to devote your wealth and your life to the spiritual and material interest of these poor youths of the early 19th Century Waterford quaysides, many of whom were in need of correction.
It was for the benefit of these boys that Edmund opened his first school in Waterford in 1802. Soon joined by two companions from his native Callan – Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn – Edmund sought to establish a new Religious Order of men, after the example of the Presentation Sisters’ similar mission aimed towards girls, founded in 175 by Nano Nagle, and the Institute of Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded in 1725, after the example of St John-Baptist de la Salle. Edmund Rice and his companions – having taken vows and received the cassock on 15 August 1808 – prayed together each morning and evening, attended Mass and received Holy Communion daily in addition to spending time in Eucharistic Adoration, taught their students academic and technical subjects, and ate sparingly – such was their way of life, for which they enjoyed the patronage of Bps Thomas Hussey and John Power, a personal friend. In this context, the life which they had led since 1803 – when Mount Sion school received Episcopal approval a year after its foundation – became more structured within the general life of the Church, the Rule of Life for their Religious Community approved in 1821 by Pope Pius VII and the work of the Congregation of Christian Brothers formally recognised by the Vatican. In 1825, Edmund and his initial group of 30 Christian Brothers provided free education, clothing, and food to 5,500 boys in 12 different towns. Edmund Rice spent the years 1838 until his death on 29 August 1844 in retirement, growing increasingly senile and requiring both the constant care of a nurse and the use of a wheelchair. A diverse crowd of mourners from across the prevailing social and religious boundaries of that era attended his funeral, showing the esteem in which Edmund Rice was held.
In the words of Pope John Paul II during the Mass of Beatification for Edmund Ignatius Rice, celebrated in the Vatican on 6 October 1996, he was an outstanding model of a true lay apostle and a deeply committed Religious. As already indicated, Edmund Ignatius Rice and his Community were daily Massgoers and Communicants who spent time in Eucharistic Adoration. Devotion to Our Lady – Our Lady of Good Counsel (Presentation Brothers) and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (Christian Brothers) – was properly balanced, and Edmund and his Brothers prayed the Memorare daily. Edmund proved himself a man of principle when he severed his order’s links with the National Board, established in 1831, during a specially-convened general chapter in 1836, due to their fear that the vow of gratuitous instruction would be imperilled by the acceptance of State Grants and due to public mockery of Catholic prayer-sheets and statues of Our Lady reported to have occurred during a minority of school-inspections involving non-Catholic inspectors. The miracle which paved the way for Edmund Ignatius Rice to be beatified involved the cure, in 1976, of 19-year-old Kevin Ellison, of Newry, from a gangrenous colon: Br Laserian O’Donnell, a family-friend gave Kevin’s parents a relic of Edmund Ignatius Rice and promised to have Mass offered for the safe recovery of Kevin Ellison. This miracle was later confirmed as genuine and worthy of belief. Up to 5,000 Irish people attended this Beatification in 1996.