In April 1993, Pope John Paul II declared the Irishman, Brother Edmund Rice, Founder of the Presentation Brothers, to be a man of heroic virtue and holiness and worthy of the title, Venerable. On October 6th, 1996 the Beatification of Edmund Rice took place in Rome and was presided over by Pope John Paul II.
Edmund Rice was born on June 1st 1752 in Country Kilkenny, Ireland. Unlike most Irish-Catholic families of that time, Edmund’s family was well off. His father managed a very large farm. Edmund first attended a ‘Hedge School’, an illegal fee-paying school (literally behind hedges in the fields), set up by traveling teachers for those Catholic parents who could afford the fees. At this time Ireland was under British rule. Edmund later attended a commercial academy in the city and this helped him in his later business career. At the age of 18 he went to work with his wealthy uncle in the port city of Waterford. His uncle had a large shipping business in this thriving port. Edmund quickly learned the business and became a familiar figure along the docks and in the high society of Waterford.
At the age of 24, Edmund had the world at his feet. His uncle had just signed his entire business over to Edmund. He invested heavily in land and property and he also fell in love with a lovely girl, Mary Elliot, and the happy couple married. But within a year his cross would come. Mary his wife, and a young mother-to-be, died as a result of a fall off a horse whilst out riding. Due to the accident, their baby daughter was born prematurely. The child was learning disabled and needed nursing care for the rest of her life. Edmund was shattered. He was a very religious man and read the Bible daily. He got consolation from the passage that he underlined in his New Testament, “The Lord gave; the Lord took away; so blessed be the name of the Lord”.
After the tragic accident, Edmund’s religious and prayer life intensified. He assisted at the daily Mass and read sacred scripture daily. It was also at this time that he began to visit the other side, the other face of the city of Waterford; the face that lay behind the façade of the commercial prosperity and merry social life, the city of the poor, of narrow streets and dark alleyways, where the miserable hovels were crowded together. He got heavily involved in charity work, visited the poor in their homes and the prisons, but it was the plight of the poor, uneducated children and youth that perturbed him. Edmund, like the rich young man in the Gospel, was haunted by the conviction that “something else was wanting of him”. He prayed for guidance in his life, continued to run his business and at the age of 31, already a millionaire, found that the pieces of his life were coming together.
The thought of entering the priesthood in a monastery in Europe was in his mind. The story is told that one day he went to visit a priest friend in Waterford, Fr. John Power. During his conversation a commotion was heard in the street outside. A group of young boys was brawling and fighting in the street.
The priest’s sister who was present, said to Edmund, “Well, Mr. Rice you are thinking of burying yourself in a monastery in Europe. Will you leave these uneducated, poor boys uncared for? Can’t you do something for them?”
At this time, Edmund played an active part in the establishment of the Presentation Sisters’ Schools for girls in the city. He rejoiced that the girls of the city would have devoted nuns to teach them both the love of God and formation for life. The example of the good sisters confirmed his own resolution to do similar work for poor boys. With a few volunteer helpers he began to teach religion and secular subjects to children in the evenings at his own houses at the docks. At this time, he decided to wind up his business and give himself to God in a religious life and service to youth. He began to build his first monastery and school and in the meantime he and two volunteers took temporary accommodation over one of his stables. He began to form a religious community. Living together, they rose early, prayed together, attended daily Mass, then taught all day and prayed again in the evening. This type of life became the blueprint of the life that his followers, the Presentation Brothers and Christians would live. Others began to join his movement and he built more monasteries and schools. In 1800, Edmund and his eight companions formally formed the new religious congregation known as the Society of the Presentation. Their rule of life entailed three vows to God:
Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
New members joined the brotherhood and in 1829 Pope Pius VII approved the Constitution and Rule.
Brother Edmund continued to teach and open new religious communities and schools throughout Ireland and England. The Brothers lived a life of prayer in the service of God.