At a Cross Roads
After the body blow of his wife’s death, Edmund became more religious than anytime in his life. He read the Bible regularly (an unusual practice at that time) and he developed a devotion to St. Teresa of Avila. Above all he developed a close and personal relationship with Christ. At this point of his life he also became involved in charitable works and regularly visited the poor of Waterford city providing financial assistance to those in need.
During this period of his life Edmund felt that his life was in need of a new direction.
On a business trip in 1793 he shared a room with a friar. Before going to bed, both men prayed together, however, after Edmund retired for the night, the friar continued to pray. When Edmund woke the following morning, the friar was still at prayer. The event had a profound influence on Edmund and it led him to begin seriously considering a religious vocation.
Edmund was now aged 31 and a millionaire by today’s standards. He eventually decided that he would go to Europe to become a priest. However, he shared his thoughts one day with a friend, Mary Power. She replied with words which would change Edmund’s life:
“So, you are thinking of burying yourself in a monastery on the Continent. Will you leave these poor boys uncared for? Can’t you do something for them?”
Edmund made a resolution that, rather than go abroad to become a priest, he would remain in Ireland and do something for the poor children of the city.
However, he was a layman and there was no model for a priest becoming involved in work of this nature. One hundred years before, a French Priest, had founded the De La Salle Brothers but there was nothing like this in the English speaking world.
In addition, these were Penal times and a law passed in 1791 forbade the “establishment of any religious order or society bounded by monastic vows”.
Edmund wrote to Pope Pius VI for advice and the Holy Father encouraged him in his endeavours. He also received support from the local bishops.
In 1797, Bishop Thomas Hurley of Waterford wrote a Pastoral Letter in which he discouraged Catholic parents from sending their children to “Bible Schools” established with the purpose of training children to become Protestant.
The Presentation Sisters
A Cork woman, Nano Nagle, meanwhile, had been addressing similar issues by providing education for young, deprived girls. She had founded a religious congregation which became known as the Presentation Sisters. In 1798, Edmund assisted the Sisters in opening a convent and school in Waterford city.
Edmund decided to try something similar for young boys. In 1800 he began to teach youngsters at his business premises in Barronstrand Street with the assistance of some volunteers.
The work was very difficult and the teachers who came to help had no interest in doing that work on a full time basis as part of a life totally dedicated to God.
Undaunted, the following year, Edmund converted some stables on New Steet into a makeshift school. He also hired two assistants to help to teach the boys.
It did not go well and Edmund’s friends and colleagues described it as an act of “mad folly”.
In addition, the residents around New Street were unhappy that the young, unruly children were bothering them and the two teachers couldn’t cope and abandoned Edmund. At this point, Edmund also began winding down his business interests. Edmund was now aged 40.
Two men, Patrick Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, arrived to help Edmund. They had been considering dedicating their lives to God also. The three men lived in temporary accommodation over the horse stable as they waited for a monastery to be built.
Unknown to themselves, even though the conditions were difficult and their success was limited, something beautiful had been born.