Servant of God Ignatius Spencer: Apostle of Ecumenical Prayer

Fr. Spencer was known for his zealous efforts in the cause of unity between Catholics and Protestants, and his desire for England’s conversion.

Ex Voto at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris
Ex Voto at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris (photo: Via Wikimedia Commons)

Among the more than 37,000 ex votos in the Basilica of Notre Dame-des-Victoires in Paris there is one large plaque to the right of the sanctuary, close to the statue of Our Lady. (An “ex voto”, shortened from “ex voto suscepto”, "from the vow made" is an offering made in thanksgiving for a blessing received or prayer answered.) It was offered to Our Lady in 1864 by three English converts to Catholicism and implores her intercession for the conversion of all England.

These three Catholic converts made their prayer in the name of George Spencer, who had died on October 1, 1864, as Father Ignatius of St. Paul, Passionist. The date on the plaque is December 8, 1864, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, proclaimed ten years before by Pope Pius IX.

The name George Spencer, or Father Ignatius Spencer, has been in the news lately, usually with a headline referencing Princess Diana Spencer, his great-great-great niece. In a century of Anglican converts to Catholicism, he is one from the highest ranks of British society. The Honorable George Spencer was the youngest son of George Spencer, the Second Earl Spencer, former First Lord of Admiralty and Home Secretary of the United Kingdom and Lavinia Bingham Spencer, also the daughter of an Earl.

Spencer was born on December 21, 1799. He attended Eton College in 1808, coming under the influence of Reverend Richard Godley, who encouraged him in piety and asceticism. His father did not approve and removed him from Eton, continuing Spencer’s education at home until he went to Cambridge in 1817, studying at Trinity College. He earned a first class degree with high honors and went to the Continent for his Grand Tour.

As often in families with several sons, he found his career in the Church of England. When Spencer returned from Europe—and like Blessed John Henry Newman after him, he was both fascinated and repulsed by what he saw of Catholicism on the Continent—he studied for the Anglican priesthood. Ordained in 1824, his father assigned him a parish in Brington, Northamptonshire, where Spencer was conscientious in his duties to the sick and the poor.

But he began to have doubts about the Anglican Church and Protestant doctrine. He started to read the Fathers of the Church, and again like Newman, Spencer could say that “The Fathers made me Catholic.” As he pondered this dilemma, he received a letter from a correspondent in Lille, France, encouraging him to study the teachings of the Catholic Church. Then he met Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle, a recent convert, who further influenced him. In his own account of his conversion, he states that after a discussion with one of de Lisle’s priest friends:

“I answered, ‘I am overcome. There is no doubt of the truth: one more Sunday I will preach to my congregation, and then put myself into Mr. Foley’s hands and conclude this business.’ It may be thought with what joyful ardour he embraced this declaration, and warned me to declare my sentiments faithfully in these my last discourses. The next minute led me to the reflection: Have I any right to stand in that pulpit, being once convinced that the Church is heretical to which it belongs? Am I safe in exposing myself to the danger which may attend one day’s travelling, while I turn my back on the Church of God, which now calls me to unite myself to her forever? I said to Phillipps, ‘If this step is right for me to take next week, it is my duty to take it now. My resolution is made; tomorrow I will be received into the Church.’”

He sent a message to his father, resigned his living, and was received into the Catholic Church on January 30, 1830; Spencer immediately left England to lessen the embarrassment for his family. He knew it would be a shock to them: the son of a noble becoming a Catholic!

While at the Venerable English College in Rome, he met Father Nicholas Wiseman, later the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and also Father Dominic Barberi, the Passionist priest with a passion to be a missionary in England. (The Passionist Order was founded in 1720 by Paolo Francesco Danei, better known as St. Paul of the Cross.) After completing his studies in Rome, he was ordained in 1832, just three years after Catholics achieved religious freedom in England. Father George Spencer returned to England to serve a parish in Walsall, West Midlands and began to be known for his preaching and teaching skills.

In 1838, Father Spencer instituted a great “Crusade of Prayer for the Conversion of England” and soon after being appointed as the chaplain to the seminarians at Oscott College in Birmingham, preached at St. Chad’s in Manchester on the need for unity between Catholics and Anglicans in England. He went to Oxford to talk to John Henry Newman, Vicar of St. Mary’s the Virgin, Fellow at Oriel, and leader of the Oxford Movement to discuss the goal of unity in truth but Newman refused to meet with him.

Eventually, Father Spencer decided to become a Passionist; on January 5, 1847 he was clothed in the habit of the order by Father Dominic Barberi, who had received Newman into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845. He took the name Father Ignatius of St. Paul. After Father Dominic died in 1849, Father Ignatius became Provincial of the Passionists in England and Belgium. He worked with Sister Elizabeth Prout, another Catholic convert, to establish a Passionist religious institute for women, the Passionist Sisters also called the Sisters of the Cross and Passion.

As he continued to travel throughout the British Isles, Father Ignatius’ health began to fail and he suffered a heart attack on the way to visit a friend. Walking from the train station in Carstairs, Scotland to his friend’s house, he died alone in a ditch. He, Blessed Dominic Barberi, and Sister Elizabeth Prout (Mother Mary Joseph of Jesus) are all buried in the parish church of St. Anne and Blessed Dominic in Sutton near Liverpool. Mother Mary Joseph’s cause is also active, and both she and Father Ignatius are titled Servant of God.

Servant of God Ignatius Spencer, like so many of the Anglican converts in the nineteenth century, contributed greatly to the revival of Catholicism, what Blessed John Henry Newman called the Second Spring, in England. His zealous efforts in the cause of unity between Catholics and Protestants, and his desire for England’s conversion, have earned him the title of “Apostle of Ecumenical Prayer”.