Who is Edmund Rice?
Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice was a father, husband, philanthropist, educator, and visionary. In the two centuries since his death, his example as a man of compassion, action, and faith has inspired thousands, like Edmund, to make the world a better place for all life.
Edmund’s early life and foundations
Edmund, born in Callan Ireland in 1762, was born to Margret and Robert Rice. His family home was a six-roomed thatched cottage on his tenant farmer father’s 175-acre farm.
Edmund was the first member of his family to be formally educated, and at 17 he was apprenticed to his uncle, a merchant in Waterford, Ireland. Waterford was a thriving port town, Europe’s second largest at the time. His uncle’s business dealt in the trading of livestock and goods, particularly to British ships that would pass through the port. Following his uncle’s death in 1779, Edmund took over the business and quickly became a man of high regard and influence in Waterford. It was in this period of his life that Edmund began some of his work in supporting the orphans, senior citizens, and those made poor.
He was also a man of deep Catholic faith. As a child he was regularly in contact with Augustinian Friars for both his education and to celebrate Mass. In Waterford, Edmund regularly turned to a group of Jesuit Priests to help shape his spiritual direction and counselling. Edmund was known to attend Mass daily, and an avid reader of spiritual texts, including The Bible, a copy of which he scribed his favourite passages such as Luke 6:35: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…”. The development of his faith led to Edmund becoming an active and influential member, and advocate of Waterford and Ireland’s Catholic community.
A husband and a father
Edmund married at about 23. Not much is definitively known of ‘Mrs. Rice’, including her name. She died young and left Edmund heartbroken, and a single father to their daughter, Mary. What is known is the profound effect this had on Edmund. Edmund had lived an early life of great privilege, but his experience of going from a happy husband to a bereaved widow and single father changed him.
Convention at the time would have Edmund send his daughter to be raised by his in-laws and failing that to his parents. Edmund was a man who often bucked the conventions of the time and chose to raise his daughter himself. In time Edmund called on his step-sister Joan to assist him in raising Mary.
Edmund’s experience of fatherhood only compounded the calling of his heart in the aid of the poor and the needs of his community.
Dedicated to justice
Throughout his life, Edmund was a man dedicated to justice. His reputation in business, as a man of integrity often led to Edmund being made the executor of wills and trustee of various charitable bodies. This included:
helping new orders of sisters with finances and investments,
supporting widows and orphans,
and providing housing to those made homeless.
His passion for justice and advocacy also led to Edmund establishing several charitable bodies including:
The Trinitarian Orphan Society which housed, clothed, fed and supported 100 orphans.
The Distressed Roomkeeper’s Association provided support to those living in Waterford’s crowded slums, particularly aiding the elderly living without family or care.
The Waterford Mendicity Asylum housed and employed with dignity those coming to the city looking for work and relief from famine and crop failures.
Edmund was a man who held great compassion for those imprisoned. In Waterford, he was a regular visitor to those in jail, often bringing money and donations. His largest gift was relationship and counsel, to the extent that “many of these [men] had become hardened and callous during their imprisonment…[and] were unresponsive to the chaplain but were won over by Edmund.” He would sit with those facing execution, providing them with what solace he could provide, often accompanying them to their executions.
Br. John Norris (1823 - 1912) recalled a story of Edmund's generosity in action. Towards the end of his life, Edmund was living within a monastery when "a poor woman and her children called at the monastery for relief - he [Edmund] had no ready cash about him at the time - he then drew on the pantry and gave her all the stores he could find." Edmund was always aware of his great privilege and would profess for all to "give to the poor in handfuls". Edmund was a man driven by a passion for justice and leaving people’s lives better than he found them.
"It was universally recognised that Mr Rice was a man of exceptional ability, great perseverance and piety...[Edmund] devoted his life and his means to the uplifting of his fellow countrymen while the cloud of persecution was still hanging over the land."
A memory of Edmund from John Butler of Callan in 1912.
A Liberating Educator
Following the death of his wife, Edmund seriously considered religious life in a monastery, but with counsel, he found his vocation in the education of the poor children of Waterford. The level of poverty that Edmund was confronted with in Waterford is difficult to relate to. Even in the early 1900s, it was said that “a comparison of the poor of the present day with the poor in Br. Rice's (time) will give but a faint idea of how Brother Rice administered to the wants of poor children. In fact, there is no comparison of the destitution of the poor then and now.”
While continuing to administer his business, Edmund started educating ‘street boys’ in his home on Arundel Lane. By 1802 he had established his first school. With no formal training as an educator, his success was dependant on the partnership and support of others. Eventually, two men from his hometown came to help him, Thomas Grosvenor, and Patrick Finn. On the 7th of June 1803, Edmund opened his school, which was named Mt Sion. The school was small and had to conduct many outdoor classes for some two to three hundred boys.
Driven by his Catholic faith, Edmund’s approach to education was one of presence, compassion, and liberation.
He was deeply present to those around him, especially the children.
Edmund opened his heart up to his students. Contrary to the practices at the time, Edmund encouraged students to use the first names of all their instructors and rejected the norm of corporal punishment.
For Edmund, education was the liberating key to unlock the potential in each pupil. Liberation through education was at the core of ending cycles of poverty and inequality.
In opening the hearts and minds of boys and young men he helped give them the hope that they needed to build a better life for themselves and their communities. Edmund’s work in education broke generational cycles of poverty, including for Sarah O’Donovan’s family. In 1912, almost a century after Edmund began his work in education, she said that her “father regarded the education he got from Brother Rice as of the greatest advantage, as the family had got into difficulties at the time, and therefore it could not afford to give him any education, only he got it free of charge from Brother Rice. His education was then to my father a boon and a charity he owed it to the piety and charity of Brother Rice whose name was a household word, as he did so much good for the people.”
A visionary leader
Edmund knew he couldn't affect change alone. He had a vision of a religious order to help enact his mission of liberating education. On the 15th of August 1808, Edmund and seven Brothers took their first religious vows as the Society of the Presentation, walking in the footsteps of Nano Nagle and her Sisters of Presentation. In time, this society of Presentation evolved into the Christian Brothers, with some choosing to remain Presentation Brothers. At this time his ministry had expanded to 30 Brothers educating, free of charge, some 5,500 boys in 12 different towns or cities across Ireland. Today, schools established or inspired by the Christian Brothers total 280 in 20 countries, educating almost 200,000 young people.
Edmund Rice's legacy
Edmund Rice died in 1844, and since his death, his impact has been seen across the Americas, Ireland, the U.K, Africa, India, and Oceania. The spirit and charism of Edmund Rice continue today in the work of Edmund Rice Community Services, and our network partners across Oceania. His example of presence, compassion, and liberation continues to inspire us as an Edmund Rice Community.