George Spencer (1799–1864), son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, was first an Anglican priest. He converted to Catholicism to become a Catholic priest and eventually became a Passionist, taking the name of Ignatius. he worked tirelessly as a missionary in the service of Christian unity. In decrees authorised on Saturday, Pope Francis recognised the priest’s “heroic virtues” and declared him Venerable.
Educated at Eton and Cambridge, George Spencer took Anglican Orders in 1822, as a deacon. In 1824, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England, and began work as a parish priest in Brington, where every account has him attending assiduously to the spiritual and temporal needs of his parishioners.
By the late 1820s, however, he had begun questioning the scriptural grounds of the 39 Articles and had entered into correspondence with several prominent scholars — among them some Catholics — who encouraged him in his search for truth.
George Spencer eventually sought communion with the Catholic Church and was received. He travelled to Rome and studied at the Venerable English College, where he met Bl Dominic Barberi — the Passionist priest dedicated to the conversion of England — who also played a role in the conversion of St John Henry Newman. George Spencer received ordination to the Catholic priesthood in 1832, and in 1847 took the Passionist habit and the name, Ignatius of St Paul.
For the next seventeen years, he preached, taught, exhorted, and tended to the needs of people throughout England — especially to Irish migrants in the West Midlands, who suffered grinding poverty — and even travelled abroad in his duties to the Passionists and in service of his principal cause, the conversion of his beloved homeland. He succeeded Barberi as provincial of the Passionist Fathers in England and Belgium upon the death of his friend.
“He was always asking people to pray for Christian unity,” said Fr John Kearns CP in 2016, when Fr Spencer’s positio — the official report on his life — went to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for examination. “The expression he used was ‘unity in the truth’,” Fr Kearns explained. “The mainstream thing (among Catholics) would have been ‘everybody convert to Catholicism’,” he said. “He wasn’t against that and had done that himself,” Fr Kearns went on to say, “but he could see that something else was needed and that was his objective.”
Fr Spencer was also an inveterate cricketer, who described the game as his “mania” and taught it to students for the priesthood.
Fr Ignatius Spencer died in 1864, and was buried beside Blessed Dominic and Sr Elizabeth Prout — the “Mother Teresa of Manchester” — who founded the Passionist Sisters and preceded Fr Spencer in becoming Venerable by just a few weeks.
*An earlier version of this story reported the decrees as signed on Friday, rather than authorised on Saturday.