“Father, you give your gifts of grace for every time and season, as you guide the Church in the marvellous ways of your providence”.

This evening we are gathered to give thanks to God for His gifts of grace. The grace of the presence of the Presentation Brothers here in Dungannon over the last 100 years. We praise God for this presence and see it as part of the guidance God gives to His Church in the marvellous ways of His providence. Providence is another name for God – a God who cares for His people and provides for His people at all times and in many different ways, on their pilgrimage through life.

This evening we come together to give thanks for that care. We give praise to a God who takes the ups and downs of human experiences, the losses and the gains, the successes and the failures, and allows the blending and blurring of one experience into another, to create the whole that is human life. As pilgrims, we can see in all of these experiences, the gracious presence of God. In faith we can assess, with the passage of time, the meaning hidden in events from the past.

In the Gospel, Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. Earlier in that chapter, St. John tells us how Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a good man, a thoughtful man, a leader among his people, came to Jesus by night. He had seen the signs, which Jesus was doing – changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, purifying the temple of the wheelers and dealers and moneychangers.

Nicodemus thought about all of this and saw that it was good and drew his own conclusions, namely, that this man had come from God. “Rabbi” he said, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God”. Jesus compliments him on his shrewdness, thoughtfulness, reflection, whatever you like to call it – his wisdom. He says, “Very truly I tell you no-one can see the kingdom of God, without being born from above”.

What Jesus is saying is, yes, you have done well in deciding that God is present and at work in my words and actions. You have listened to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. You are right in that. Here we are listening to a discussion between teachers. Later on Jesus says to him, “Are you a teacher in Israel and yet you do not understand these things, namely, that everyone must be born of water and the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God”.

Tonight we thank God for the Presentation Brothers. Teachers, who came from many parts of the country, many different counties – Leitrim, Cork and Clare, who came here but also who, we believe, have come from God, to do God’s work, to bring the Good News and the message of God to the people of Dungannon. Tonight we thank God for Blessed Ignatius Rice and the inspirations, which he received from the Holy Spirit.

Ignatius Rice was a wealthy, pious, charitable man who had considered becoming a monk after the death of his young wife. He, himself, had been educated in one of the so-called ‘Hedge Schools’ during the times of the Penal Laws. Because, like Nicodemus, he was a reflective man, a thoughtful man, a prayerful man, he saw the need there was for education. He was struck by the great number of young, good, Catholic boys, who wandered the streets of his adopted Waterford, but had no education and no real preparation for life.

He asked himself the question, What must be done? He probably prayed about it and then decided that the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to use his wealth to rent a barn and to start his first school. Very soon other people – other young men, who gave their services to teach without any financial reward, joined him. They lived in community; they followed a rule of life, which they took from the Presentation Nuns, which were founded by Nano Nalgo some years earlier. They were known as Gentlemen of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. They presented themselves to the Lord for this work.

Edmund Rice and his companions lived as a community. That means they prayed together, they attended daily mass and they taught. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They devoted their lives to the Christian education of young boys – especially the poor. In other words, they gave up any ambitions they had of becoming rich in the things of this world, preferring to try to become rich in the sight of God. They lived a vow of chastity, which means that they gave up their option of marrying and having their own family and having the affection and the love of a wife and children. They did all of this for the sake of a greater good, so that they could be free to dedicate themselves totally to their teaching and to their prayer life. They also took a vow of obedience. They gave up their freedom.

All of this was so that they could be a sign. A sign to the rest of the world, the people they met. A sign of another world – another life – a life beyond the grave. They are a sign that we have not here a lasting kingdom. That is obvious, the fact of life and death tell us that every day. No, we have not here a lasting kingdom. We seek One that is to come. We forget that truth very easily. We act as if we had, as if there is no other purpose to life than to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

This evening then we give thanks to God for the presence of religious Sisters and Brothers and priests in the world – in our midst – in the Church. More specifically we give thanks to God also for the vision and the inspiration which Dean Burn had 100 years ago to invite the Presentation Brothers to come to Dungannon.
As Dean MacLarnon tells us in the Commemorative Booklet, it was an important decision for which the people of the parish would be ever grateful. I think the fact that the Parish has organised this evening’s ceremony and the events connected with it, indicates they are ever grateful.

Of course that decision was not without its troubles and trials. Dean MacLarnon says “in the early days it would appear that the function of the Brothers at infant level and at secondary level was a matter for some discussion and even disagreement between Dean Burn and the Brothers. As time went on, however, their work became more and more essential and valued in the parish.

Tonight we give thanks for the glorious success of the last 100 years. We give praise to God for the many dedicated and generous teachers who spared no effort in preparing their pupils for life in this world and in the next. We ask pardon for the flops and the failures. As this particular chapter draws to a close we once again put our trust in the love and protection of a gracious God.

Today we thank God for the decision to invite the Presentation Brothers to come here and for their generosity, which responded to that decision. When I think of the Presentation Brothers, Dungannon, I think of Brother Majella, Brother Aloysius and Brother Adrian who, now that their formal teaching is ended continue to play an active role in many activities of the parish.

In the past I know that many Club choirs were trained under the supervision of the Brothers. Their care for the sick and the bereaved is famous as they tried to bind up the wounds of the broken hearted. All this work is placed under the seal of the Brothers of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the greater glory of God. All of this plus the Gospel we have just heard points to the real success of their presence here in Dungannon.

The challenge today remains the same. To tell people that God so loved the world that He gave His only son and to have people believe in Him and his eternal life.