Edmund Rice was born in the village of Callan in County Kilkenny in 1762, the fourth of seven sons in a farming family. At this time in Ireland the Catholic Church has been forced underground by the English Penal Laws, which prevented a Catholic from owning land over a certain value, from entering the professions and from owning a weapon. He would have been aware of the poor conditions that Catholics were forced to suffer.
At seventeen he began working in his uncle’s shipping business in Waterford, which was the second busiest port in the world at the time. When his uncle died in 1785, the business was passed on to Edmund. Edmund married Mary Elliott when he was twenty-five, but she tragically died two years later, in 1789, and he was left to care for an infant daughter with a serious disability.
Edmund became more and more concerned about the ragged boys around the ports of Waterford. He began to devote much of his time to works of charity. For example, there was a boy by the name of Johnny, a black slave whom Edmund saw on a ship moored at the Waterford quay. He purchased the young boy from the ship’s captain, paid for his schooling, saw him baptized and eventually set him up in a small business. Under Edmund’s influence, Johnny became well-known for his piety and devotion to religion, as well as his success in life.
Edmund then sold his business, arranged for his daughter’s care, and opened his first school in 1802. As well as teaching the boys from the streets, he built a bakery and a dormitory and a tailor’s shop, so they could be fed, clothed, and have a place to sleep. He established three more schools by 1806. He and his first companions took vows as the Presentation Brothers in 1808 and he later formed the Congregation of Christian Brothers. He took the name ‘Ignatius’ and became known as Edmund Ignatius Rice.