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I was born in 1762. I was the fourth son of a family of seven boys and two girls. My father's name was Robert Rice, my mother's had been Margaret Tierney. My name is Edmund. My father could not own land because of the Penal Laws but he leased 160 acres. This was an enormous amount considering that most tenant farmers were allowed to lease only one or two acres. My father never let the injustice of paying rent to another person for land that really belonged to us make him bitter. He worked hard and even employed a number of poor people to work on "our" farm.
Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat. May it benefit us body and soul. Should there be any poor person going past our house at this moment who is hungry, send him in to us so that we may share our food with him as with you. God share your blessings with us.
I did very well at school, especially in bookkeeping, which was good for me for two reasons: first, it was valuable; and second, since I had three older brothers, there wouldn't be enough room on the farm and I would need to seek employment away from home when I grew up. I finished my formal education when I was seventeen. Because I was a Catholic, the law declared that I could not be a lawyer, doctor or engineer, or get elected to Parliament. I was limited to being a farmer on leased property or I could buy and sell farm products such as cattle or cloth made on the farm. In other words, I could be a merchant.
I went to work for my Uncle Michael Rice, who was a merchant in the town of Waterford, about thirty miles south of Callan. I convinced my uncle that we should go into supplying ships directly. I would do most of the buying: cattle and sheep to become salted meat; flour to make sea biscuits; pitch for the cracks in the ship's planks; canvas and rope for sails; even ballast for ships that were empty. Our business prospered. By the time I was twenty-five, I was an equal partner with my uncle.
As a young man, I certainly knew how to enjoy life. I was a skilled horseman and I had a great love for other outdoor activities, especially rowing and sailing. I was also keen on dancing and singing. When I was twenty-two, I met the girl of my dreams, Mary Elliott. We were married a year later. She joined me in my social life and in my outdoor activities.
Four years later, Mary was dead. It was January 17, 1789. We were horseback riding. Mary sustained severe injuries when she fell from her horse and lacked the strength to fight off a fever that followed. Since she was pregnant at the time, she gave birth prematurely to our daughter, Mary. The shock of Mary's death led me to weigh and measure my life more and more from a supernatural point of view. I turned to prayer more than ever before. My former dreams and worldly ambitions were in tatters. Gradually I learned to come to terms with being a true Christian through the mysteries of death and sorrow. Through my prayer, God gave me the grace to accept sorrow and suffering so that I was able to say quite humbly and simply: The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be his name for ever and ever. (Job 1:21)
Slowly I began to take up a renewed life. I knew I would never marry again. My stepsister Joan Murphy came to be my housekeeper and to care for young Mary. As Mary grew older, we discovered that she was not developing properly. She was an invalid.
Sorrow and grief changed my whole outlook. It gave me the strength to open my whole heart to Christ, whom I began to know as present and appealing to me in the poor. I had always known that, behind the facade of my great commercial prosperity and my full social life, there was another Waterford: the Waterford of the poor, the Waterford of narrow streets and dark alleys where miserable hovels were crowded together.
As I was outwardly resuming my commercial activities with ever-growing success, I was inwardly becoming more and more pre-occupied with religion and charity. I found that I was developing a deeper interest in people and their problems of poverty, illness or lack of faith. I began to become more concerned about our business and how wealthy I was. It all seemed too easy for me. It seemed in grave contrast to all the squalor around me.
As my works of charity became more widely known, I was selected trustee or administrator of a number of good causes. I also worked "unofficially" at restoring poor people, who had been imprisoned for debt, back to their families. Because I was known to the British soldiers whose ships I outfitted, I was able to visit jails and accompany condemned prisoners to their place of execution. There were many similar situations due to the harsh laws of the times. "Real" lawyers were unwilling to work for these people, especially since the people could not afford their fees.
On a very significant day, in 1793, in the course of my business, I fell into traveling with a Friar. We stopped at the same inn and shared a room for the night. The Friar, thinking I was asleep, arose and seemed to spend the whole night in prayer. This example had a profound effect on me. I resolved to untangle myself from business and lead a monk's life of retirement and prayer. I thought that I could move to Rome and join the Augustinians as my brother, John, had done just a year earlier. I thought it would be appropriate to put my talents to use as a lay-brother in that Order.
I had a matronly woman as a confidant in Waterford whom I always consulted on important matters. When I proposed to her that I might leave for Rome and join the Augustinians, she remarked, "Well, Mister Rice, while you go and bury yourself in a monastery, what will happen to these poor boys? Can't you do something for them? Perhaps something similar to what Nano Nagle's Presentation Sisters have done in Cork?"
Her words went right to my heart and the clouds of uncertainty melted away. I saw that I was called to be a man to help youth in their ignorance and in their poverty. Having heard of the Presentation Sisters, I had become interested in their approach to education and the terminology that their foundress, Nano Nagle, had used in describing them: "Religious of Charitable Instruction." I reflected on how her Sisters seemed to divide their lives between an active life rescuing the poor from their plight, and a contemplative life ever-deepening their own love of God.
Upon the advice of Father John Power, I proceeded to have an interview with Bishop Lanigan of Ossory (the Diocese in which Callan is located). I was surprised by his willingness to see my plan proceed. He had been considering the formation of a diocesan institute for the education of the Catholic poor. I seemed to be an answer to his own prayers. Thus he assured me that my intentions were surely from God and encouraged me not to sell all my possessions, but to put sufficient resources in place to secure my endeavor.
He also encouraged me to submit my plan to Pope Pius VI for his approval. Upon receiving an encouraging reply and a special blessing from His Holiness, I began to seek the opportunities to make my plans become reality.
When my uncle died in 1794 the business became entirely mine. This was an increasingly confusing time for me. There were four great influences bearing upon me: my profitable business, the changing political climate, my desire for a deepening spirituality and the demands of the charitable works that I wished to continue. How was I to reconcile my talents and desires with the Will of God? How was I being called to use my resources to serve my people, especially the most poor? Especially the young?
In late 1801 I sold my business and began managing my assets toward the establishment of a school and with a view of possibly establishing a religious congregation. In January of 1802 I set up my first school in the New Street stable. It was roomy enough to provide space for three classrooms and had a loft for living quarters. I hired two men to help me teach the boys that I encouraged in from the streets. The boys were understandably rough and turbulent. After a short time, the hired teachers made known to me their decision to leave. I pleaded with them and offered to double their wages. Their reply was, "Not for all the money that you have, Mister Rice, would we try to teach such boys."
I felt alone now. I was middle-aged, untrained, and hardly experienced in the art of teaching. My students were wild and difficult. I prayed and prayed because I realized that my success no longer depended on my business talents. The days turned into weeks. At last an answer came.
Two young men from my home town of Callan, Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, offered to join me. They had interests similar to mine, to travel off to Rome and join the Augustinians, but my brother, John, now working in Callan, persuaded them to spend some time with me first. They wanted to try working and living with me, accepting no fee or other reward. My brother, John, had told them of my desire to begin a group of teaching religious men.
The three of us developed a daily horarium for prayer and followed a routine based on the Presentation Sisters. That was why Bishop Hussey initially referred to us as the Society of the Presentation.
School was conducted in the manner with which I was familiar as a business man - with practicality. Considering the condition of the boys, however, a considerable amount of compassion had to be included also. We separated the students by newness and degree of improvement, rather than by age. Some of the older and more improved boys served as monitors, especially for copying and reading. I found that a number of the more improved boys showed interest in my personal library. I allowed them to take a book home with them so that they could read on their own. I found out later that a number of these boys used these books to read to their parents.
In addition to the educational aspects of our school, we considered the spiritual lives of the boys. At the chime of the hourly bell we all stopped our class work and recited a prayer. Every school day included a half hour of catechetical instruction. The complaints from our New Street neighbors quickly subsided as our organization of classes and the behavior of our boys improved.
Our early success prompted the construction of a more complete facility just outside the walls of the city. We began construction in June of 1802 for this, our first permanent facility. It was named Mount Sion by Bishop Hussey when the monastery was finished a year later. Shortly thereafter the Bishop died and Father John Power was named Bishop of Waterford.
This appointment truly seemed a blessing for us since Father Power had been my adviser during my earliest days of decision. On April 25, 1804, Father Power consecrated our completed Mount Sion facility. It provided space for the school, our quarters, a bake shop and tailor shop as well.
In 1806 we established our second establishment at Carrick, about five miles up the river Suire. As in New Street, the students were initially very unruly and very difficult to manage, but with prayer and persistence, success was achieved. In 1807 Bishop Power was granted a large sum of money with a provision that some of it be used for the establishment of a school for the poor in Dungarvan, about eight miles southwest of Waterford.
On August 15, 1808, on the Feast of the Assumption, in a most solemn manner, I was joined by Patrick Finn, Thomas Grosvenor, John and James Mulcahy, William Hogan, Michael Power and Edmund Dunphy for a formal pronouncement of the three vows of religious life and became members of the Congregation of Religious Men of the Presentation of Our Blessed Lady.
In response to Bishop Power's letter to Rome requesting a Papal Brief, we received encouragement and praise from the Sacred Congregation. We were also encouraged to proceed with drafting our own constitutions and submitting them for approval. Bishop Power accepted this response as sufficient grounds for us to make perpetual vows. This we did on August 15, 1809, and I became Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice.
Bishop Moylan, of Cork, had visited us in Waterford during 1809. He had been instrumental in assisting Nano Nagle in the foundation of the Presentation Sisters in his diocese. He requested that we send Brothers to Cork for a school there. I assured him that I would, if I had the Brothers to spare. About the same time, Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin requested the establishment of a school in that city. I knew that the Archbishop would be an invaluable ally and strongly desired to accede to his request. With God's grace, three additional members came to us around that same time. With our numbers sufficient to the task, and with Bishop Power's approval, two Brothers extended our work to Dublin in 1812.
With this rapid expansion came the renewed interest in establishing ourselves as a distinct entity in the Church of Rome. In 1817 the Superiors of the eight communities of our growing institute came together to consider drafting the required Constitutions that would incorporate our unique character. Consideration was also made as to our relationships with our local Bishops, especially on the requirement of their approval for transfers from one community, and diocese, to another. I had always envisioned the institute reaching further and further from our beginnings in Waterford, and realized from experience that there would be a need to move Brothers freely from location to location. If a Brother could be selected as the overall leader of the Institute, rather than relying on the desires of the different local Bishops, the appropriate distribution of human resources would be more easily achieved.
When we concluded our deliberations the Superiors carried the results of our work to each of their communities. Over the next two years, community meetings and additional meetings of superiors produced Constitutions which were strongly supported by Archbishop Troy of Dublin and sent on to Rome in 1819.
On September 5, 1820, Pope Pius VII signed the Papal Brief which gave approval to our Institute's first Constitutions, still largely based on that of the Presentation Sisters. In January of 1821 we received the Papal Brief through the hands of Father Peter Kenney, S.J.
Now it was up to us, the Brothers of the Institute, to accept the Brief and the Constitutions that it represented. A few Brothers from the community in Cork, notably Michael Augustine Riordan, continued to live by the Presentation Rule. They continued as the Presentation Brothers. The following year, on January 20, Brothers of the Institute formally gathered at Mount Sion and accepted the Brief. (The Presentation Brothers became an Apostolic Institute in 1889.)
In the first General Chapter that followed, my Brothers elected me as the first Superior General of our Papal Congregation. As time went by and I was able to regularly visit each of the communities, I realized that our Brothers were going to require additional funding, primarily for their own upkeep. Considering the varied conditions throughout our country and the two-fold nature of our schools, practical as well as religious education, there was a need for Catholic schools among those who were not as poor as those to whom we had been ministering. It seemed to me that it would be appropriate to establish schools in which students were asked to pay for their education. Since this was in direct opposition with one of the clauses of our Papal Brief, we needed approval from Rome to make the adjustment. We made petition in 1823 and again in 1824 and received no reply. The decision was tabled until we met as a General Chapter in 1838. Although the Brothers did not accept the revision of our Constitutions to include pay schools, we did agree that two of our Dublin schools would accept pay from the students who attended there.
In the intervening years our Institute continued to grow. In 1825 we established our first school outside of Ireland, in Preston, England. This was quickly followed by an opening in London, 1826, and eventually in Liverpool, 1837. Two Brothers set off for Gibraltar in 1835, and, although we had been invited to New South Wales, Australia, in 1832, Brothers were not sent there until 1842.
Starting in December of 1831 and into 1832, ten years after we had officially begun as a Papal Congregation, we met in General Chapter to review and reconstruct our Constitutions. We had lived our lives as teaching Brothers and had taken on a distinct character. It was time to incorporate that in writing.
In 1838, as Superior General, I called a special General Chapter to announce my resignation. My age and health were preventing me from properly performing my duties. At the assembly my resignation was respectfully accepted. By the end of 1841 I had become quite ill and confined to bed. In the following year I was having some mental difficulty and slipped in and out of a state of semi-coma. In August of 1844 I was failing rapidly and on the 29th of that month I was able to say a few thanks and good-byes to those attending me before slipping into my final rest.
Were we to know the merit and value of only going from one street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God, we should prize it more than silver and gold.
In St. Peter's Square on October 6, 1996 as Pope John Paul II beatified Edmund Ignatius Rice he stated:
Here we have an outstanding model of a true lay apostle and a deeply committed Religious. Today, his spiritual sons, the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers, continue his mission; a mission which he himself described in this simple and clear intention: "Trusting in God's help, I hope to be able to educate these boys to be good Catholics and good citizens."