Being a Catholic Religious Institute, Christian Brothers dedicate their lives to the service of others, particularly those at the margins of society. They work across the world in areas of education, community engagement, faith formation and social justice.
Not long after the death of his wife in 1789, Edmund Rice, a successful Irish businessman felt drawn to respond to the plight of those made poor on the streets of Waterford. In 1802 he established a free school for boys in New Street, Waterford. Other men were drawn to Edmund and his work of justice for the poor youth of the city. They lived together in community and were professed as Brothers, along with Edmund, in 1808.
At the time of Mt Sion’s opening, Dr Power initiated proceedings with Rome to obtain papal approval for Edmund and his companions to form a lay religious congregation of brothers. Ireland, at this time, had never had a male lay-religious congregation.
On 15 August 1808 with the blessing of the bishop, Dr Power, eight men assembled from all three Brothers’ communities and made Temporary vows according to the rule of the Presentation Sisters. Edmund took the religious name of Ignatius, due to his close friendship with the Jesuit priests.
Dr Power instigated the procedure to get the full approval of the Church by writing directly to Pope Pius VII. He received a favourable reply by 1809. Dr Power saw the way clear to allow the brothers to make Perpetual or permanent vows as religious brothers. Exactly a year later, the brothers, after a spiritual retreat of eight days, took Perpetual vows of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and the Gratuitous Instruction of Youth. This last vow was unique to religious orders of the time.
The good news of Edmund’s educational crusade on behalf of poor boys soon spread beyond the boundaries of the Waterford diocese. A number of bishops expressed the wish that Edmund open a school for the poor boys in their dioceses.
In 1811, the Brothers opened a school in Cork. In 1812, they opened a school at Hanover Street on the south quays of Waterford. In quick succession Cappaquin (1813), Limerick (1816), Thurles (1816), Mill Street, Dublin (1816), Francis St, Dublin (1820) and Preston, England (1825) were opened.
Preston was the first opening outside of Ireland, and constituted a major development in the missionary outreach of this new lay religious congregation of men. By 1825 Edmund Rice and his 30 Christian Brothers were educating free of charge 5,500 boys in 12 different towns and cities. Many were also being clothed and fed. The year 1825 also saw the expansion of the Brothers’ response to God’s call to provide the same liberating education for the poor in countries beyond Ireland.
The spread of the new Congregation into several dioceses created huge administrative difficulties for the early Brothers. Each community was under the jurisdiction of the local bishop in which it was located. Edmund felt these difficulties amounted to a serious constraint for the development of the congregation, so he looked for an alternative model of administration.
Edmund discovered that the solution to these difficulties lay in receiving approval for his congregation as an Apostolic Institute of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1817 Edmund applied to the Holy See in Rome for an Apostolic Brief. Pope Pius VII granted this request and issued the formal brief establishing the Congregation as an Apostolic Institute in 1820. This meant that the Brothers under the leadership of an elected leader would guide the growth and development of the congregation internationally without any constraint from a local bishop. The Brothers formally accepted the brief in Mt Sion on the Feast of the Holy Name, 20 January 1822.
Edmund Rice was elected the first leader of the new Apostolic Institute, the Congregation of the Christian Brothers. Some Brothers wished to retain their local diocesan affiliations, and remained as the Presentation Brothers Congregation under the jurisdiction of each individual local bishop.
Edmund continued to guide the Congregation of Christian Brothers as its Congregational leader until the General Chapter (held every six years) of 1838 where he was succeeded by Br Michael Paul Riordan. The present Congregation Leader is Br Philip Pinto, originally from the Indian Province.
Edmund lived out the remainder of his days in the Congregation as a member of the Brothers’ community in Mt Sion where he died on the 29 August in 1844. He is buried in the Edmund Rice complex, Mt Sion Waterford which has been recently renovated. Pope John Paul II beatified Edmund on 6 October 1996. The feast day of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice is formally celebrated on 5 May.
The first invitation to the Christian Brothers to minister within the Church in Australia occurred in 1832, during the life of Blessed Edmund Rice. However it was not until 1843, at the invitation of Archbishop Polding, that the first Irish Brothers arrived in Sydney for a short period.
The Brothers returned in 1868 to Melbourne under the leadership of Brother Patrick Ambrose Treacy at the invitation of Bishop Goold. In that first party were Brothers Patrick Ambrose Treacy, Dominic Fursey Bodkin, John Barnabas Lynch and Patrick Joseph Nolan. They arrived in Port Philip Bay on the Donald McKay on November 18th, 1868.
The first school was at St. Francis in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne and its establishment caused quite an excited stir among many of the Irish Immigrants who had made Melbourne their home. Over the ensuing few years schools were established in East Melbourne (1871), South Melbourne (1874), Brisbane (1875), Ballarat and Dunedin New Zealand (1876), St. Kilda and Geelong (1878), Adelaide (1879) and Balmain (1887) in Sydney.
Over time the Christian Brothers established or helped staff over 120 schools in every Australian State and Territory. Four Australian Provinces of Christian Brothers were in existence before the formation of EREA in 2007. The four Provinces were; St. Patrick’s [Tasmania and Victoria], St. Francis Xavier [Queensland the Northern Territory], St. Mary’s [New South Wales and the ACT] and Holy Spirit [South Australia and Western Australia].
Since the small beginnings in Waterford in 1802 the Christian Brothers have reached out in mission to many parts of the globe. Communities of Brothers, schools and other ministries were established in England (1825), Canada (1876), New Zealand (1876), India (1890), Rome (1900), USA (1906), Grenada (1947), St Lucia (1947), Argentina (1948), Trinidad (1948), Papua New Guinea (1950), Zimbabwe (1954), Uruguay (1955), Dominica (1956), Antigua (1958), Barbados (1961), Zambia (1964), Peru (1967), Ghana (1968), Liberia (1969), Cook Islands (1976), Fiji Islands (1981), Sudan (1986), East Africa (1987) and East Timor (1995).
In 2007 the Christian Brothers established a community of Brothers in the Philippines and Edmund Rice International was established and began its work with the United Nations in Geneva.
Recently, restructuring of the Congregation has taken place for the Brothers in Australia, Europe and North America. The five Provinces including Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea have combined into one Oceania Province whilst the provinces that included Ireland and England have combined into a single European Province. Canada, Eastern America and Western America have restructured into North American Province. The four districts in Africa have combined into one Pan African Province.
Christian Brothers and other members of the Edmund Rice Network are now working in over 30 countries across the globe. They are continuing to discern the signs of the times and respond to the needs of the poor and the earth, while working towards a just and sustainable future for all.
To free up their personnel and resources for mission in the developing world and to empower lay people in mission and leadership the Brothers established Edmund Rice Education Australia as a Public Juridic Person in 2013. Mindful of our proud history the work of the Brothers continues to inspire all involved in our EREA schools.
Edmund Rice Education Australia is proud of its efforts to make a difference in a world so divided by injustice in all its forms.
Our inspiration is the Gospel of Jesus and the unique Gospel insights that inspired an Irish businessman, husband and father to turn to the poor youth of his city and to find in them the face of God. Edmund’s presence led him to a profound presence which in turn resulted in an ever deepening compassion. Edmund’s journey into presence and compassion led to liberation for Edmund personally and for those he walked and ministered with.
Edmund’s unique insight into scripture was a call to support the most vulnerable and those at the margins, by means of education which was directed to personal and social liberation and possibility. In our day, the sights provided by the Gospel and Edmund’s charism have led Edmund Rice Education Australia communities to focus their efforts on building inclusive communities, basing all on a Gospel spirituality, being focussed on justice and solidarity all leading to an education which is truly liberating. These Touchstones challenge and inspire us to be authentic to our sacred story.
Edmund was given the grace to respond to the call of Jesus by identifying with Christ in the poor. His example evoked a deep awareness of God’s loving presence in all. He invited his followers to share the Gospel insight to reach out to the needy. ‘Edmund Rice was moved by the Holy Spirit to open his whole heart to Christ present and appealing to him in the poor.’ 1984 General Chapter.
"Blessed Edmund Rice was present and responded to the message of Jesus who lived in his heart:(Luke 4: 18-19)
The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of our god’s favour."
May these words and this example of Edmund be our legacy!