Ignatius Spencer

Great-great-great uncle of Princess Diana

Everyone has heard of the Spencers of Althorp, Northamptonshire, the family to which Princess Diana belonged. They have been one of England's great families for hundreds of years, marked by wealth, status, and engagement in politics and government.

When Ignatius was born in 1799 he was called George. He was the youngest son of the second Earl Spencer, who was at that time Lord of the Admiralty. He was brought up in the elegance of Althorp; he studied at Eton and Cambridge and went on to become a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1824.

He was a very good priest and had visions of spending his life among the people in Northamptonshire, but God had other plans for him. He began to have doubts about the Church of England and after much prayer and reflection he decided to become a Catholic in 1830. He went to Rome to study in the English College, where two years later he was ordained a Catholic priest.

While he was in Rome he met Fr. Dominic Barberi, a Passionist priest who had a great love for the English people. George and Dominic became great friends, they both shared a burning desire to bring about Christian unity in England. Later, in 1846, when the Passionists came to England George Spencer entered the Order. It was then that he took the name 'Ignatius' because it was the custom to take a new name on entering a religious order. His life style changed very much in the Passionist Retreat: Fathers and novices slept on beds of straw and spent long hours in prayer and meditation. They even got up in the middle of the night to pray. They fasted and abstained from meat three days a week. Like the others, Ignatius wore the rough Passionist habit and sandals on his feet, even in wintertime.

He became a great preacher and went all over the country giving missions. People crowded into churches and halls to hear him preach. They queued for hours to go to confession to him. When he spent three days in a parish giving a mission, he used to get up at 5.00 a.m. celebrate Mass and hear confessions for the rest of the day, breaking off only for a meal and to preach in the evening! He would do about forty of these missions a year, and only occasional breakdowns from physical exhaustion prevented him from doing more.

Always when he was preaching and hearing confessions he would ask the people to pray for the conversion of England. On many occasions he said 'I will not rest until I have found the last person who does not love God'.

He also had a great love for Ireland. Many of his famous 'little missions' of three days were preached there and his begging tours on behalf of his order met a generous response. He said that the Irish, despite their limited resources, were always generous to him. And he had a special confidence in their prayers for England's return to Catholic Church.

Early in Ignatius' spiritual journey, he abandoned the wealth and elegance of Althorp. As a Church of England minister he was very generous to the poor and literally often gave them the clothes off his back. When he became a Passionist priest he took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He observed poverty very rigorously. When he was building a church at Dudley, rather than go to a public inn, he used to sleep, wrapped in a large cloak, on the bare floor of what served as a sacristy. He walked wherever he could and carried his possessions in a couple of coarse sacks.

Fr. Ignatius gave his last mission in Scotland at the end of September 1864. On the Friday, his last day, he heard confessions in a small church till after midnight. The next morning he was up at six, heard confessions, celebrated Mass. At 9.15 he caught the train to Edinburgh, where his next mission was to begin that night. The train stopped at Carstairs and, before getting the next connection,, there was time for a surprise visit to an old friend. Leaving his luggage at the station, he walked briskly through the countryside towards the house. A hundred yards down the road, he stopped and chatted briefly with a young child before continuing on his way. A few moments later, Fr. Ignatius collapsed and died.

He is buried in the Passionist church at Sutton, St. Helens, Lancashire, close to his friend and fellow apostle of England, Blessed Dominic Barberi. He was regarded as a saint during his lifetime and after his death, but it was only in 1992 that the Church officially opened the inquiry into his holiness. "The canonisation of Fr. Ignatius Spencer, Formerly the Honourable George Spencer, if God grants it, will bring a new glory to the Church in this country and abroad." Hubert Condron CP.

written by Sr. Marcellina CP