Edmund Rice (1762-1844) was born into a Catholic family in County Kilkenny. The Rice family was unusual because they had achieved prosperity, leasing and farming 160 acres at Westcourt, outside the village of Callan. At the time, Ireland was under British rule, and the Penal Laws imposed a century earlier had affected every aspect of spiritual, social, economic, and political life. Under the Penal Laws, Catholics were legally barred from teaching or receiving an education, practicing the Catholic faith, entering professions, running for political office, or owning property. Between 1641 and 1776, the proportion of land owned by Catholics in Ireland had dropped from 60% to 5%. "[The Penal Laws'] declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education" (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797). By the time of Edmund's birth, enforcement of the laws was easing in Kilkenny, yet the majority of Catholics in Ireland were still mired in poverty, with little or no access to education.
At age seventeen, Edmund went to work in the port city of Waterford, joining his uncle Michael Rice in the provisioning trade. Edmund married at 23, but within a few years he lost his wife Mary, probably in a fever epidemic. Their daughter Mary had been born "delicate" â€“ the exact nature of her handicap is not known to us. Left a widower and single father, Edmund raised his daughter with help from his sister, and soon prospered in trade, becoming very wealthy. Tested by suffering and loss, he drew closer to God, attended daily Mass, and studied the Bible. Edmund's faith was fed by several streams: the Irish-speaking piety of his Kilkenny upbringing; an Ignatian influence gained from Jesuits in Waterford; a deep biblical spirituality grounded in his daily reading; and a practical-mystical strain imparted by his favorite saint, the great Carmelite Teresa of Avila.
Increasingly, Edmund opened his heart to Christ present and appealing to him in the poor, especially the street children of Waterford. In 1802, at the age of 40, he founded the Christian Brothers. The Brothers lived in community, dedicated themselves to prayer, and served their neighbors through teaching and other works of mercy. Edmund proved an innovative educator, keen on experimenting to achieve the best results. He found that if boys were grouped according to their skill-level and assisted by an older boy (one for every 12 students), one Brother could effectively teach dozens of students at once. Edmund also undertook to care for "the whole student," body, mind, heart, and spirit. At Mount Sion, his first school, he built a Bake-House and Tailor-Shop so that the students would not go hungry or endure rags. This compassion extended to the boys' families as well. Edmund and the early Brothers also visited the sick and dying, and consoled prisoners awaiting deportation or execution.
By the year of Edmund's death in 1844, the Christian Brothers had opened schools across Ireland, and founded new communities of Brothers in England, Gibraltar, India, and Australia.
In the later nineteenth century, Irish Christian Brothers travelled to Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa. Schools and missions soon spread across Africa and throughout the West Indies and Latin America. Here in the U.S., a group of Irish Brothers were invited to establish All Hallows School in Harlem in 1906, leading to the opening of the Iona Schools in New Rochelle ten years later. The global reach of the Christian Brothers is reflected in the College's founding: among the Brothers most instrumental in planning, opening, and leading the College were nineteen Brothers born or raised in Ireland, several Canadians, two British citizens, and one intrepid Welshman.
Today, the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers live and work on five continents. They remain committed to an education that develops the whole person, integrating body, mind, heart, and spirit. Together with their lay colleagues, the Brothers' work extends to other ministries such as prison ministries, youth work, adult education, spirituality and ecology centers, migrant labor outreach, parish support, and second-chance education throughout the world.
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