MASS OF THANKSGIVING AND FAREWELL FOR THE
CONGREGATION OF CHRISTIAN BROTHERS
ST PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
TUESDAY 15 JUNE, 1999
HOMILY BY MOST REV. SEÁN BRADY
Dear friends I welcome you all to our Mass this evening. I welcome especially Br Kevin Mullan, the Provincial Leader of the St Mary’s Christian Brothers Province. I welcome the Mayor of Armagh City and District, Cllr Thomas Canavan and Mrs Canavan, on this, one of the Mayor’s first functions since having assumed office yesterday. I welcome all of you here present, all in one way or another, associated with or touched by the Brothers: the trustees, governors, benefactors, parents, staff and pupils, whether past or present, of Greenpark Primary and Grammar Schools and St Patrick’s Grammar School; members, past and present, of St Patrick’s Grammar School Past Pupils’ Union; representatives of DENI, SELB and schools throughout this City of Armagh and of the Armagh City school catchment area; representatives of Armagh civic, cultural, parish and diocesan life, including members of Armagh religious communities; members of Armagh Edmund Rice League of Prayer; Greenpark Brother alumni, clergy alumni and former chaplains; family members and friends of the four Armagh Brothers, now sadly departing from us, and other representatives of the wider CBS family. I especially welcome those Protestant clergymen here present this evening, former pupils of Greenpark. We are most grateful for your presence. Needless to say, I welcome the four Brothers whose departure from Armagh we mourn, Br Leo Kelly, Br Larry Ennis, Br Dermot McDermott and Br Desmond Young, and I welcome back those Brothers who have served in Armagh in the past. I convey the apologies of Cardinal Daly who would have wished to be here but is out of the country at present.
Each time we come together to celebrate Eucharist we are remembering – remembering the words and promises of Christ: remembering his life, suffering, death and resurrection, and the example of love he left to us. This evening we remember in a double way. We remember the Christian work of the Brothers and their contribution to the youth of Armagh. So, in our Eucharist this evening we go to the root of that word – our Mass here now is also a thanksgiving. We are grateful and that is the source and the motive for our celebration.
Tonight we give thanks for many things. We give thanks for Blessed Edmund Rice, one of the greatest and remarkable men in the history of this country. In 1802, Edmund Rice set up his first school for poor boys in a stable in Waterford. Since then thousands of his Brothers, members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, which he founded in 1802, to assist him in his noble work, have taught the poor all over the world; in primary and post-primary schools, in schools for the deaf and the blind, in technical schools and in universities.
The year 1831 saw the birth of the National Schools in Ireland. A grant would be paid on condition that the school was conducted on non-denominational lines, that is, with separate religious instruction. This was totally against the integrated approach advocated by the Christian Brothers. In their schools religion permeated the whole school day. Edmund Rice was persuaded to give the system a trial and attached six schools to the new National Board. However, after much controversy he severed the Congregation’s link with the Board. What this meant in practice was that, until the foundation of the Irish State, the Brothers had to depend for survival on the voluntary subscriptions of their benefactors.
In 1829 Catholics in Ireland and Britain rejoiced at the passing of the Emancipation Act. However, not all Catholics rejoiced. For the Emancipation Act caused a crisis for Edmund Rice’s new Brotherhood because there was a clause inserted in this Act “to make provision for the gradual suppression and final prohibition” of male religious orders. The Brothers faced an uncertain future knowing that they were an illegal organisation and the penalty for any new member who joined could be transportation for life to the penal colonies of Australia. The Brothers are no strangers to uncertain futures but somehow or other, with the help of God, they managed to survive.
In 1829 Edmund Rice had to turn down a request from Dr Curtis, then Archbishop of Armagh, for a school in Drogheda. Shortly after his appointment, as Archbishop of Armagh, Paul Cullen wrote to the Superior General of the Christian Brothers, Michael Riordan. Archbishop Cullen had a request to make. He requested that the school be opened in Armagh not Drogheda. He wrote: “In the midst of our troubles I have induced the ladies of the Sacred Heart (Order) to come to this city and to found a house here. In a few days time I hope to open a school here under the direction of the Christian Brothers. This city is completely abandoned and now one must make every effort to inspire it with a little Catholic spirit.”
And so the first Brother, Vincent Cronin, arrived here from Liverpool at the end of October, 1851. He was joined a few weeks later by two more Brothers and their first school opened on 24th November, 1851.
There were 120 pupils. The schoolroom was on old grain loft in a lane way off Irish Street opposite the entrance to the present-day St Malachy’s Church. Twenty years later by Br Cronin describes those early years. “Armagh at the outset was indeed a very uphill business,” he says. “I must say the people (of Armagh) never allowed us to go into school minus our breakfast. I found them very generous considering their limited means”.
Br Cronin later returned to England to collect funds for the erection of a brand-new building. Its foundation stone was laid in 1854. The two largest classrooms are still in use today.
In 1878 the intermediate or secondary system was begun. Unlike the national system the intermediate system put no religious restriction on the schools participating. With the introduction of the intermediate system a period of great consolidation started in the history of Greenpark. This lead directly, in 1904, to the first extension of the original school when two classrooms were added. The Superior, Br Titus Frisby, at the turn of the century tried to build a new residence. However, it was to be 70 years later before this happened. For as always, the needs of the pupils took priority.
On 1st April, 1927, the Primary School was formally recognised by the Ministry of Education. So, after 77 years the Brothers were in receipt of a government salary. The last Annual Charity Sermon for the upkeep of the community took place that same year.
Post-primary education was provided, by the Brothers, from 1878 until the arrival of free education in 1947. This post-primary education was provided for all-comers, irrespective of creed or class. In common with other Brothers’ schools at the time, free education was made accessible to all, long before the State made provision for such. Secondary School fees were a mere pittance and, by the Brothers’ rule, no pupils could be excluded because of the inability of their parents to pay even the small fee.
Greenpark proudly numbers some 10 Protestant ministers of religion among its alumni. To their credit, these reverend gentlemen often returned to their alma mater to say thanks and to renew acquaintances and friendships with their former teachers. They practised ecumenism long before it became fashionable. It was typical of the generosity and self-sacrifice of the Brothers that it was only after the provision of near-adequate buildings for the school that they thought of providing the much-needed new residence for themselves.
In 1984 the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich intimated to the provincial of the Christian Brothers that the Vincentian Fathers would be leaving St Patrick’s College. In 1988 a most successful amalgamation of the two schools was carried out. The vacated Greenpark Grammar School was occupied by the Primary School. Since then a co-educational Bunscoil was opened in 1995.
So tonight we give thanks to God for all of that. The Brothers right down the 150 years of their time in Armagh appreciate very deeply the loyalty, support and generosity of the people of Armagh, especially of their past-pupils. Without this support the schools at Greenpark would never have survived. The Brothers were, and are, deeply indebted and grateful to these local benefactors. Tonight we praise God for that generosity.
And now this evening, 148 years after the arrival of the Brothers in this Primatial City, we gather for another task. After so many years and so many people, our community, our City, is faced with an unpleasant task as we bid the Brothers farewell.
Our celebration is a family occasion. There are tinges of heartfelt nostalgia for the past. It should never be forgotten why the Brothers were invited here in the first place. They came to provide education for the poor. They came at a time when such education was not available to poor Catholics. The work of religious congregations, of brothers and sisters and priests in Ireland in the last century must not be forgotten. They provided education and health care for the poor Catholic people in this country. That must never be forgotten. They didn’t just provide their teaching. In most cases, as here in Armagh at Greenpark, they also provided the buildings in which that teaching took place. Edmund Rice, Catherine McCauley of the Mercy Order, Nano Nagle of the Presentation Sisters, and their brothers and sisters performed an invaluable service to this nation. They certainly responded to Christ’s call to serve the least of his brethren. They were patriots in the truest and purest sense of that word.
So as we remember and give thanks tonight we salute the service of so many people. We salute the Brothers and their co-workers. We remember, with gratitude, the teachers and parents of six generations who made sacrifices to hand on the faith. We remember and salute the contribution of rich and poor, who by joining the fruits of their work to that of the Brothers, shared in the work of their hands.
What the Brothers have left us here in Armagh is fundamentally a tradition of service and self-sacrifice for the love of God. They have always worked for people, not for profit. The Gospel set the syllabus for Edmund Rice. Education was his conscience.
To do and to teach, is the motto of the Christian Brothers. That motto comes from their faith in God, who has revealed Himself in Christ. Christ’s last words to his disciples were: “Go teach all nations”. In this final year of preparation for the Great Jubilee we are all called to make a journey. We are called to rediscover the heart of the Christian faith, which is faith in the Trinity. We are called to be witnesses to this faith in our daily lives. We are all called to play our part in making God’s Kingdom come on earth. The Brothers play their part by living a life of profound faith and of prayer. A life of faith which issues forth in good works.
Now 140 years later I can truthfully say that the expectations of Cardinal Cullen have been fully realised.
May I publicly put on record my appreciation of the work of the Christian Brothers here in Armagh. In doing so, I know that I am speaking on behalf of countless individuals and families in this city who have reason to be grateful to the Brothers and their schools because of the quality of education they have received.
Br Kelly, you have been headmaster for the past eleven years of St Patrick’s Grammar School and in the 1970s and 80s you were teacher and headmaster in Greenpark Grammar School. Excellence has been the hallmark of both schools under your headship; you can justly be proud of St Patrick’s Grammar School, this superb educational institution, second to none on these islands, which has so splendidly developed under your competent direction from its foundation in 1988. Br Ennis, you have taught on the staff of St Patrick’s Grammar School for the past eleven years and were headmaster of Greenpark Grammar School from 1982 to 1988. You have truly endeared yourself to generations of young men and to their parents, not just by your pursuit of high academic standards, but also by the pursuit of excellence on the football field. Br McDermott, you were principal teacher of the CBS Primary School in Armagh from 1967 to 1988, during some of the worst years of the Troubles. You retired from teaching in 1988 but did not retire at all, but rather tirelessly engaged yourself in work for this parish and for this Archdiocese. We were happy last year, on the occasion of your Diamond Jubilee, to see your dedication and commitment rewarded by papal recognition. Br Young, in comparison to your colleagues, your apprenticeship in Armagh has been short, lasting only eleven years. You have served faithfully and ably during that time as teacher, dean and Superior.
We recall all the Brothers who have served here. We recall all the lay teachers who taught in Greenpark and at St Patrick’s Grammar School, the pupils who passed through these schools. We recall the living and the dead. We recall the Brothers who have died here and whose earthly remains lie here on Sandy Hill. We pray that they may rest in peace.
Finally, might I suggest one means of expressing thanks to the Brothers for all they have done. Could I suggest that you pray for the canonisation of their Founder, Blessed Edmund Rice? Here, I take this opportunity of thanking and commending the local Blessed Edmund Prayer Group who are so faithful and loyal to their meetings.
We thank the Christian Brothers for their work here in Armagh. We pray that the Lord may continue to bless them and their apostolate in all parts of the world in which they continue the apostolate of Catholic education.
Like St Patrick, in the words attributed to him, the Brothers could say:
“Is Ard Macha no charaim-si
Inmain treb, inmain tulach.”
(It is Armagh that I love
A dear people, a dear place.”)