The first reference in the public arena about Edmund Rice was printed in a bitterly cold 1789 mid-January: “Died at Ballybricken, the wife of Mr Rice”. And that’s all we know definitively about the wife of Mr Rice. This announcement was published in four quality newspapers, including the Dublin Evening Post. I start with this quote because it offers some understanding about Edmund’s values and I’d like to think his spirituality.
Most likely, the wife of Mr Rice died of Typhus, which had killed thousands throughout Ireland in 1788-89. Edmund was 27 at the time and had been married 3 years. Mrs Rice was probably a teenager, since the average age of brides at the time was between 14 -17.
Ballybricken offers us real information about Edmund. He owned land there and this became eventually the place of his first monastery and school. Ballybricken was no Hamilton Heights or Ascot. It entertained 5 open air abattoirs, where 4 thousand pigs were slaughtered weekly. There were a number of large markets where pig and cattle owners sold their animals. The meat was packed into barrels for sale.
Close bye was an army barracks, which generated significant prostitution as well as bastard and abandoned children. Let me give you a brief eye witness observation of those who resided in Ballybricken.
“They are the most depraved and abandoned of our community, a den of thieves , abandoned females and miscreants of all denominations’’.
Edmund Rice had living quarters at Ballybricken because he had been awarded provisioning contracts for the British Army and Navy. He needed to have a base close to his business. Nevertheless, like other wealthy commercial operators Edmund purchased a classy 4 storey building in a classier Arundel Lane with its sea views, fresh air and really classy neighbours.
But the little family never lived there. My guess is that Mrs Rice came from the rough and ready lower classes who worked the markets. Rice scandalously married beneath his social level. Consequently, she would have never been accepted by the toffs who lived in the Arundel Lane vicinity. She was a no body but gained a public status from being the wife of Mr Rice. Because she is a no body her Christian name is not mentioned in the funeral memorial. She was the wife of Mr Rice.
Living in Ballybricken, meant Rice experienced more intimately Mrs Rice’s family and friends, some of which may be described as thieves , abandoned females and miscreants of all denominations’’. It was at Ballybricken that the teenage wife introduced Edmund to life of the boisterous, assertive, roughly mannered, disrespectful, sometimes bawdy, loving, salt of the earth, Irish. And his humanity thrived among these people. I quote from Edmund:
“…were we to know the merit and value of going from street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God, we would prize it more than gold and silver”.
I believe it is these people who energised Edmund into mission. In his own Ballybricken home, with Mrs Rice, he offered education in the 1780’s as an 90 year old Mrs Carey relates in 1913:
…when he was a young man he would bring the poor children into his own private house and give them bread and clothes. This before he opened school for them all…in his private house somewhere in the grounds now known as Mount Sion
I would like to fast forward to 1814, when Edmund’s first follower, Br Thomas Baptist Grosvernor wrote the essentials of a “Rice School” to a parish priest in England.
The Brothers educate the poor for no other motive than pure and disinterested charity… They watch over their pupils with truly paternal solicitude, which care extends long after they got married and settled in business.
What does “pure and disinterested charity mean”?
In 1828, politician Daniel O’Çonnell, universally dubbed Ireland’s Liberator spoke to a crowd exceeding 100,000 at the opening of Edmund’s Dublin flagship school at North Richmond Street.
This school would be founded on liberal and not sectarian principles … no means would be adopted to influence the Protestant child, he would be educated and taught with as much anxiety as the Catholic but with his religion there would be no intermeddling.
Br Stephen Carroll explains what this value meant practically:
In 1839, I was sent to Sunderland in England and found 1/3 of the boys were Catholic. Catholics and Protestants said the same prayers; all said Catechism, all received religious instruction after the same manner. All went to Church to receive instructions on Sundays from the local priest. And in one word, all passed for the children of St Patricks… “We told the parents we could not teach them Protestant prayers” The Parents said “No matter, teach them what you please. We know you will teach them, nothing but what is good.”
Pure and disinterested charity is love in action. Rice was no Catholic zealot but a caring man who loved the poor unreservedly without distinction:
“I’d give the world to Br Rice if I had it; he was so good to the children.” So said the 90 year old Annie McDonnell in 1913.
Brother Grosvenor’s other descriptor of a Rice school concerned the Brothers who were characterized as demonstrating a “truly paternal solicitude”.
A family culture characterised Edmund’s education. Children were provided with a daily breakfast and clothed in non-institutional suits. Moreover, one particular article in the Brothers’ Rules was unique:
“The Brothers are always to address the students by their Christian names, treat them with consideration and respect and never allow them to address each other rudely”.
Elsewhere, school children were always addressed by their surname, with an older blood brothers called Jones major and his younger sibling Jones minor. Christian names were confined to the family.
At a time when physical abuse was common both in the home and classroom, the Brothers’ Rule stated:
“The Brothers shall ever be watchful that they rarely correct the Scholars by the corporal punishments they inflict…”.
Indeed there is some irony when a former student related the following memory:
“If they had been beaten by their parents, they would show Br Rice the place for him to make it well”.
It’s hardly surprising that in 1842, an English Protestant mother wrote of these Irish teachers: “The Brothers seem in a wonderful way to have won the affection of the boys they taught”. An example of this is recorded by so many ex students when describing their first communion: It was held in the Cathedral, usually the Gentry’s place of worship “…and then after, rich and poor were brought to Mount Sion school and given a Breakfast. It was a feast…”. The poor could not offer such an experience to their children. But the Brothers did.
Protestant Inspectors often recorded in their reports the presence of this family culture in a Rice School: This one is from an 1854 file:
“The superiority of these schools is, doubtless, in a great measure, to be ascribed to the extraordinary personal interest exerted by the teachers over the pupils…”
and from 1870,
…for it must be remembered that Christian Brothers’ schools are filled with youth of nearly all classes of society, and they carry away with them the feelings and thoughts they acquired at school and, moreover, a feeling of affection and attachment for their former instructors which is of unusual strength.
This caring relationship originated from Edmund Rice and perhaps is epitomized in the following observation from a ninety year old great grandmother recorded in 1912. In my opinion she made the greatest compliment about Edmund Rice anyone ever made: “He was a father and a mother to the children”.
I think this spirit of inclusivity and the cultivation of a family culture was the fundamental reason for Edmund in 1804 naming his first school Mount Sion. It’s not a Catholic name. Do a Google search and you will find the major Catholic references for Sion are related to Edmund Rice or the Sister of Sion. Clearly, it was unique to any Catholic building in Ireland in the nineteenth century.
So why Sion? What would an educated Irish Catholic at the end of the eighteenth century know about Mount Sion? The Catholic tradition holds that Mount Sion was the site for the upper room where the Last Supper was celebrated. Moreover, after Jesus’s crucifixion, the followers of Jesus stayed there as a “family”, where they prayed, shared the teachings of Jesus and showed hospitality to widows and orphans. I like to think it may well be the following verse from the first chapter of Acts that influenced Edmund to name his first school Mount Sion: They gathered there frequently to pray as a group, with Mary the mother of Jesus and with the brothers. (Acts 1.14). Indeed, the cenacle on Mount Sion was seen as the first Christian School where love, safety, companionship, education, nourishment, refuge and hospitality were experienced. It seems to me these characterised schooling at Mount Sion, Waterford.
Mount Sion is a Hebrew – Christian name, not especially Catholic. By using that biblical name, Edmund was proclaiming to Waterford society that his Catholic education was inclusive. It was open to all. All the children in the school were to be respected. Consequently, Edmund’s schools was supported by all, especially by Waterford’s Quakers and the Church of Ireland. Not surprisingly, Edmund became the chairman of the Governing Council of Waterford’s Protestant orphanage, when they failed to identify a satisfactory candidate from their own flock. He engaged with people of all faiths and none for the benefit of the common good. Such a motivation is reflected in a letter Edmund wrote to his close friend Sir John Newport, Protestant Member of Parliament: “I wish, with all my heart that I had it in my power, to render you any little service, for the many acts of kindness, which I have received at your hands”.
I finish where I started, Edmund’s spirit of inclusivity and culture of family had its genesis in Ballybricken with the unknown wife of Mr Rice and those most depraved and abandoned of our community, those thieves, abandoned females and miscreants of all denominations.
Edmund’s mission is Jesus: I have come that you may life and have it to the full.
I conclude with this prayer that Edmund composed. Note the words Edmund uses when referring to the students:
May God grant us all the grace of perseverance in his holy service: and may our endeavours to diffuse the establishment of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in the hearts of his little ones be attended with success. Amen.
Sermon by Fr. Denis Mc Laughlin in Queensland, Australia, on Edmund Rice Day