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edmund rice keogh photoAn abridged version of Chapter 2 from “The Price of Freedom” by Denis McLoughlin (David Lovell Publishing, Australia, 2006). For a full text, complete with extensive footnotes, please consult the original text.

Chapter Two: Compassion: The Fabric of Ricean Education

“… give to the poor in handfuls” (Edmund Rice)

If the education Edmund Rice provided is to be genuinely understood, it is important to appreciate his motivations when he felt compelled to initiate his education enterprise. The traditional reasons for this move are, first, that he was inspired by the work of the Presentation Sisters to replicate for boys What Honora (Nano) Nagle’s followers were doing for girls. An allied motivation was said to be a call from Thomas Hussey, Bishop of Waterford, to counteract the proselytising of Catholic children by Protestant educational agencies. This chapter offers alternative research which challenges these influences on Rice’s motivations for initiating his teaching brotherhood. In understanding of Rice’s motivations is linked to the concept of charism or “graced insight”, those experiences that led founders of religious organisations to appreciate that something in society was incongruent with the Gospel imperative and then energised and gifted them to respond to the incongruency. Such understandings provide important insights concerning what constitutes authentic Edmund Rice Education.

The search for meaning

Rice was devastated by the death of his wife ‘and felt her death most keenly’, but, as the locals recall, he became ‘reconciled to the will of God through prayer’. Indeed, the deep love Rice had for his wife is reflected in his probable naming of his daughter Mary in his wife’s honour and memory. The mother’s life continued in the surviving child. The short marriage to his teenage wife seemed to have left an indelible presence within Rice’s psyche, a phenomenon he referred to some forty-seven years after her death. In 1836, reflecting on his unique intimacy with his wife, and the devastating wound her death inflicted upon him, Rice in a letter to a nun tells how he felt compelled to sensitively and personally write to a young woman, recently made a widow. “I wrote poor Mary [Kirwan] a letter yesterday. May the Lord help her. She is now [to know] the dregs of misery and misfortune. I pity the poor Mother. It will break her heart.” Clearly, these words come from one who personally experienced the deep trauma of losing a partner with whom he was deeply in love. What is important to emphatically acknowledge and appreciate in Edmund Rice and the genesis of his brotherhood is that it was “the death of his young wife in 1789 [that] marked a pivotal point in the spiritual life of Edmund Rice”

The Waterford evidence asserts that they appeared to have been an exceptionally close couple and Mary’s death catapulted Rice into a prolonged major depression that was catalytic in him reassessing his life: “from this period it is possible to identify an increased religious and social consciousness” in Rice’s psyche. “I heard old Miss Barron say that Mrs. Rice was delicate, her death changed Rice’s outlook.” And “Edmund Rice was in deep doubts as to his future life after the death of his wife”.

This key event in Rice’s life compelled him to focus on and depth a verse of scripture that regularly threads its way in the letters, the 1832 Rules and oral traditions concerning Edmund Rice: “The Lord giveth to me and the Lord taketh away from me. Blessed be the name of the Lord”. Moreover, the reality and trauma of death became a constant companion for Rice around this time. His father Robert had died in 1787. His uncle Michael, who in many ways was Rice’s second father, died in 1794. Painfully, his younger brother Michael died in 1796. Michael had been apprenticed to Rice and was living with him, with Joan his half-sister and his daughter, the infant Mary. Rice knew he was unable to care adequately for his baby daughter alone, so he invited his spinster half-sister Joan (Murphy) to become housekeeper for him and to share parenting for Mary. His younger brother John had joined the family likewise to try his hand as an apprentice in the business, but in 1792, with Edmund’s financial backing, he pursued his vocation as an Augustinian friar, initially in Callan and then in Rome. The trauma that wounded Rice forced him to examine his inner life, and from about 1790 he was one of five prosperous young businessmen who decided to live more serious Christian lives.

At this time in Waterford, when he was a businessman, there was a very early Mass at the Cathedral in winter and summer, perhaps at 6 o’clock. He was present at it and he went to frequent if not daily Communion. At the time very few were going to frequent communion. To the best of my belief l heard that he said the Office of the Church daily. It might have been the Office of the Blessed Virgin as he was very devout to the Mother of God. (Mary O’Reilly in Normoyle)

For anyone taking the inner journey seriously, seeking God’s guidance through reflective reading especially of the scriptures becomes a regular and necessary structure, indeed a lifelong habit. So it is not surprising that Rice subscribed to the 1791 Dublin imprint of the ‘Doway’ Bible. This decision by Rice has been described, perhaps over-dramatically, as “the most significant event in the whole of his spiritual life” in that he opened himself to hear God by his regular reflections on God’s word. Such a choice was relatively unusual for Irish Catholics of the time. From then, the reading of scriptures and applying their insights to his life became Rice’s daily habit. Br John Joseph Norris has offered some of his recollections of the elderly Rice: “The next time l met him was when I entered the Novitiate at Mount Sion, Waterford, in 1841. I had to fix his chair, if in winter near the fire, place the Holy Bible before him which he read for a considerable time daily”. (Norris in Normoyle)

O’Toole comments on Rice's choice of spiritual reading thus: “Always pride of place was held by his Bible, and his equally well-thumbed copy of A Kempis (The Imitation of Christ). The daily reading of these two favourite volumes fed his devotion with highest ideals and motives”. In addition, Rice subscribed to the publication of the 1793 Waterford edition of The Spiritual Combat, a classic guide to the inner life, highly prized by St Francis de Sales, because it “reduces its maxims to practice”. It was dedicated to all those who sought true piety themselves and were ready to promote it in others. The author of the Combat Was Lawrence Scupoli, an Italian, who like Rice embraced the religious life at the age of 40. No doubt the book’s organised structure covering eighty one chapters “provided a methodological approach to the spiritual life congenial to his (Rice’s) ordered business mind”.

The call to serve

Rice’s inward quest deepened his appreciation that to follow Jesus has by definition communal imperatives:

Every true follower of Jesus is profoundly affected by an encounter with God and. in response, radical Christians become lovers of humanity and become more socially active Therefore no authentic disciple can be satisfied with a comfortable, private ‘me-and-]esus’ relationship. And no Christian can attempt to influence others’ lives, much less presume to preach to them, unless he or she has first experienced a relationship with the God of Jesus Christ (Gittins, Reading the Clouds)

In Ireland at this time, there was a unique religious phenomenon which was lay conceived, lay led and lay lived. This phenomenon is described by an early Brother historian: “there existed in some towns in Ireland communities of men, commonly called “Monks”. They followed their trade, or cultivated land, and observed certain religious exercises. Their lives were edifying and their example was most salutary to the Catholic people”. (McCarthy) In their pursuit of undertaking works of charity, many of these ‘monks’ assisted in providing some education for the poorest of the children. This lay spirituality extended itself to lay people committing themselves to religious sodalities. Rice was attracted to join two such sodalities - the Sacred Heart Confraternity and the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. Both were Jesuit-sponsored, but lay led.

This [Marian] sodality provided a definite rule of life under the guidance of a spiritual director. Members had to make a retreat each year. The rules of the sodality mentioned especially the visiting of prisons and hospitals. Catechising too was a major apostolate for members. Ten years later, after the end of the Jesuit presence in Waterford, Edmund when taking his vows chose Ignatius as his name in religion. (Positio)

So it was at this time that the layman Edmund Rice continued his practice of inviting children into his home, in Arundel Lane, in order to teach them the basics of religion. Catechising of poor children was a responsibility expected from members of the Sodality of Our Lady.

Because of the constant Fever epidemics and regular Famines, the sea port of Waterford became the magnet where hordes of defenceless orphan children struggled to survive. Consequently, it was hardly surprising that Rice co-founded with Dean Hearn the Trinitarian Orphan Society in 1793. It was established in the large Congreve mansion at the end of New Street near Hennessey’s Road. Fifty boys and fifty girls were nurtured and educated there, supported by voluntary contributions from both the Catholic and Protestant citizenry.

In particular, Rice sought out those who were most in need, for it was about this time that he accepted the responsibility to care for the orphaned Connolly sisters:

I had two great grand aunts named Connolly. Their parents died when very young. I am unable to say which of the parents was first to die. When the surviving partner felt that death was inevitable he or she went to Edmund Rice, then a prosperous business man in Waterford and asked him to act as guardian to the orphans. The parents also gave to Mr. Rice some money for the upbringing and education of the girls. Mr. Rice agreed to act as guardian to the Connollys. He lodged the money riven him on their behalf in a bank, which after a short time became involved in financial difficulties and ‘failed’ and the money for the orphan girls was thus lost. But Mr. Rice made good the loss himself from his own private funds and had the Connolly girls reared and educated at his own expense. (Whittle in Normoyle)

Seeing the need, Rice predated the establishment of the St. Vincent de Paul society by some forty years, through his finance and energy in cofounding the Waterford branch of the Distressed Room-Keepers Society, when a severe famine devastated Waterford in 1794. The charity aimed to assist the poor, who “lived alone, forgotten even by their neighbours, in dire poverty but unwilling to seek from the public any assistance for the amelioration of their lonely and wretched condition”. The pensive, serious-minded widower deliberately sought out those who were callously ignored by society and commenced visiting prisons,“ initially to comfort those who were incarcerated for their inability to pay debts as well as, where possible, even to pay their debts.” These were too often good folk, fathers like himself, imprisoned through bad luck, poor judgment, incompetency or vindictiveness. These prisons administered far more than punishment, since they were seen to become ultimately ‘seminaries of depravity’.

The debtor is soon converted into an active enemy of society; the young delinquent into a hardened criminal the minds of the inmates are rapidly molded into one case - depravity of the most practised malignity; and whilst in many prisons moral and religious instructions are either Wholly withheld or irregularly supplied, the most effective teachers of depravity, evil example and evil communication, are in uninterrupted action.

Where most others unreflectively accepted the status quo, Rice challenged it and again seemed compelled to attend to a black African slave,” he encountered in the Quay area. For so many in Ireland, the ‘blacks’ were denied acceptance of their humanity, but Rice in contrast embraced, befriended and liberated ‘Black Johnnie’ or John Thomas, the name with which he eventually was dignified. Two Presentation nuns related the effects of Rice on John Thomas:

The story is that he (Johnnie) came to the Port of Waterford on a trading vessel, and for some reason or other the Captain wanted to be rid of him or the boy wanted to be left ashore. At any rate the Captain agreed to hand him over to Edmund Rice. Presumably, a ransom was paid. The testimony says Edmund ‘negotiated with the Captain’ for him. As a young lad, ]ohnnie became a messenger boy for the nuns. In adult life, with Edmund’s help he prospered in business and became a property owner. In his will he bequeathed” to the nuns and Brothers two houses. (O’Neill in Carroll)

These episodes in Rice’s life indicate that he had undergone gradually a developmental kenosis, and, accompanying it, a heightened appreciation of and a unique sensitivity to the reality of the Incarnation, in which he accepted Christ imaged in every human, especially in the poorest and most camouflaged of humans. “I recollect the following picture of Edmund Rice as a businessman. He was a meditative figure of somewhat serious bearing as he strode along the streets of the city. He was generally alone. The common sight in those days of the ragged and poor boys playing around the streets touched him and his heart went out to them”. (Deevy in Normoyle) From his wife’s death, Rice seemed driven to serve these outcasts, and not just contribute financially as so many of his colleagues were contented to do. Compassion became synonymous with the name of Edmund Rice. What Rice was doing was not charity; he had done that before and it failed to satisfy him or alleviate the root cause of poverty. His actions now were driven by a deep response from the very core of his being to a graced insight which was changing his life. He had a compelling passion to embrace society’s rejects as the very images of God and he accepted that his mission was to liberate that image. For it was in this experience that he met his God and was embraced by his God. He said as much in 1810: “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 Gold or Silver”. (Rice to Brian Bolger)

The narrative so far offers evidence that from his wife’s death in l789 until 1793, Rice embarked on a spiritual journey with inner and outer dimensions that was as complex as it was varied. It is clear that his responses through service and education to the poor commenced much earlier than any encounters with the Presentation Sisters or a prelate’s pastoral letter.

The likely motivations

It is more likely that Rice’s choice to completely re-orientate his life, and dedicate his extensive wealth of over £50,000 to become ‘the first layman of the English-speaking world to found a body of apostolic religious dedicated exclusively to the apostolate of Christian education was generated from a far more personal source.

l heard the following about Br Ignatius Rice from old people. His wife died and he was contemplating a change of life. He used to see the poor rough boys of Waterford from the windows of his house as they roamed wild around the streets. This constant sight made him think of devoting his energy and wealth to their education. (Prince in Normoyle)

The tragedy of the death of his wife and the loss of their uniquely deep love were the catalysts to catapult Rice along a psychological journey of painful self-discovery. This very personal tragedy led to doubt, depression and aimlessness in Rice. Providence had taken one seemingly irreplaceable love, and exchanged it with another, as powerful and life-changing as it was different. This was literally the death and resurrection time in Rice’s life that was to define the rest of his life. In the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again a metaphor for personal transformation, for the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life. From this point. Rice no longer could find meaning as husband, but the tragic loss of his wife, along with his novel experience of fatherhood, extracted from him a unique exhilarating compassion for poor children who had become dehumanised by the conditions of their life, conditions concerning which they had no control. “I heard my father and friends speak of him as a great gentleman who took compassion on the poor boys of Waterford, who stood in need of education.” “I heard my father speak highly of the character of Brother Rice who took compassion on the poor children of Waterford when they had no one to look after and instruct them”

It is true that he had noticed these children before, but nothing so deep had sparked within him before. He now had a sensitised and heightened awareness. It was only now that he experienced a gut-wrenching shock, a sense of outrage at the apparent purposelessness that these innocents were forced to expect from life. This situation was exacerbated by the policies of government and the indifference of the Irish nouveau riche, a group which he and his family had embraced. Rice’s response was “intense, visceral empathy with the suffering of others… “Compassion” is a word full of guts, vitality, righteous anger and an insatiable desire to see justice done”. (O’Murchu)

It was now that that he really appreciated the dissonance between the words of Gospel egalitarianism which he so often read, and the real experiences of these dispossessed, degraded, despised and defenceless children. Although such human excreta were someone else’s progeny, he now recognised how much they were alike, yet so much dissimilar to his own daughter Mary. It was at this moment that that he recognised with clarity the reality of the Incarnation, that the greatest presence of the Risen Lord is a human person, especially those who are the most distorted. He realised that his fatherly ministrations were not to be confined to his Mary. Trauma honed within Rice a sensitised understanding that his fatherhood should be extended beyond his immediate family. It was this original ‘heart-quake’ which unleashed within Edmund Rice a compelling compassion to act on behalf of his “dear little ones”.

Consequently, Rice’s foundational motivation for founding his Christian Brothers was ultimately generated from a deep compassion for the “dear little ones” in whom he saw his incarnational Lord, rather than from any desire to combat relatively insignificant Protestant proselytising. It is simplistic as well as historically unfounded to think that Rice was responding to any episcopal or institutional church initiative or the exhortations of the mysterious Waterford woman or the example of the Presentation Sisters. The Congregations of Presentation and Christian Brothers were conceived from Edmund Rice’s deeply paternal compassion for “children, especially the poorest, as most resembling Our Lord Jesus Christ”. (McCarthy) Those who knew him recognised that it was indeed “compassion for the poor and the afflicted [that] was one of the precious heirlooms our beloved Founder left to his children”. (Jones in Normoyle) Such a perspective is strongly embedded in the oral tradition of the Waterford people.

I heard of Brother Rice from a friend of the name of Mary Geary. She spoke of him as a very kind, pious and religious man who so interested himself in little children that he used to grieve when he saw them in a poor and neglected condition. His heart ached when he saw them in want of education. His charity and love of little children urged him to devote his time and his property to render them all the assistance that it was possible for him to give. (Roche in Normoyle)


Some effort has been expended to identify what were the likely motivations that influenced Edmund Rice, when he finally made his decision to radically change his life, to divest himself of a substantial fortune and to pioneer a new type of religious community and a new concept of educating. This is important for those responsible for delivering an Edmund Rice Education. The motivations of founders of organisations determine in part the vision and values of those organisations. At a time when schools within the Edmund Rice tradition throughout the world are attempting to articulate what constitutes authenticity in the education they offer, some appreciation of Rice’s motivations is a prerequisite. O’Brien and Coyle offer a model of the evolution of Edmund Rice Education, and argue that those involved in Rice schools are in the stage of reflection, laicisation and revitalisation. This stage by definition demands that those who wish to share in Rice’s vision and values must have some understanding of what they were originally. The fundamental motivating dynamic for Edmund Rice came from a deep paternal compassion for the “dear little ones” to whose presence he responded.

This text is an abridged version of Chapter 2 from “The Price of Freedom” by Denis McLoughlin (David Lovell Publishing, Australia, 2006). For a full text, complete with extensive footnotes, please consult the original text.