Medieval Ireland was noted for its scholars. During the British “occupation” of the Emerald Isle, everything was done to discourage the education of Irish youth. In the 1800s Daniel O’Connell launched a campaign to achieve political liberty for the Irish people. The “Great Liberator,” as O’Connell was called, proudly hailed Edmund Ignatius Rice, his contemporary as an educational liberator of the Gaels.
Edmund Rice did not plan to become an educator. Divine Providence switched him into the triple role of intellectual liberator, religious brother, and saint.
In a day in which most Irish families were poor, Edmund was born into a fairly comfortable County Kilkenny family, the fourth of seven sons. His parents could afford to send him to a one-room private school where the instruction was in Gaelic. Afterwards he attended a business school in Kilkenny. When 18 he went to Waterford to work for an uncle who was a prosperous merchant. Thanks to a native talent for business, Edmund himself soon became prosperous, and in 1785 he wedded Mary Elliot, the daughter of another distinguished Waterfordian.
All went well until 1789, when Mary died while giving birth prematurely. Their child survived, but was severally handicapped. Shattered by the turn of events, Edmund found himself at a crossroads. He finally decided to devote the rest of his life to God, leaving the specific directions in the hands of the Creator. But first he provided for his dear disabled child, arranging to have her raised by his father’s family. Her expenses were payable from an endowment that he established. Well cared for, she lived to be 70.
The young widower had always been a pious, intelligent, and self-disciplined layman. Now, as he projected his future, he became even more serious about his religious commitment. Ultimately he decided that since there were no Catholic schools for boys in Anglicized Ireland, the most valuable contribution he could make to faith and freedom would be to establish a religious order of teaching brothers, and with their assistance found and maintain a series of schools. The tender father of a disabled daughter, he would become surrogate father of countless Christian sons.
In 1802, with the encouragement of the pope and the permission of his bishop, Rice and three other men formed an association, and in 1803 opened a school for Waterford’s unlettered and rambunctious boys. In 1809 the four took vows as a religious order of teaching brothers, following a rule of life based on that of the Irish Presentation Sisters. Edmund chose Ignatius as his religious name. In 1820, having found that being under the supervision of local bishops presented difficulties, the little community obtained the status of a pontifical order, subject direct to the pope. Now they adopted the rule of the “Brothers of the Christian Schools.” which had been founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle in the seventeenth century. At that point, one group of the Rice brothers broke off and declared its independence; but these Presentation Brothers, a smaller congregation, also acknowledge Rice as their originator. Up until 1966 the Rice brotherhood was called “Congregation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of Ireland” (“Irish Christian Brothers” for short). In 1966 their title was changed to “Congregation of Christian Brothers” for by that time they had schools around the world. In 1906 they made their first American foundation, a parochial school in New York City Harlem. In 1940 they founded Iona College at New Rochelle, N.Y. In 1962, when Bishop Kearney High School was opened in Rochester, N.Y, the “Irish Christian Brothers” were put in charge.
Brother Rice was the sole superior of the community until his retirement in 1838. He was so self-effacing a man that he left few personal papers to his would-be biographers. Enough is known, however, of the spirituality and achievements of this merchant-turned-schoolmaster to prove the heroism of his holiness.
On October 6, 1996, Pope John Paul II beatified Edmund Ignatius Rice, “father” to many and an educator according to the finest traditions of the Isle of Saints and Scholars.
–Father Robert F McNamara