Birth and Education
George Spencer was born on December 21, 1799 in Admiralty House, London. He was the son of the second Earl Spencer, George John Spencer, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty. George was the youngest of seven children whose descendants would include Winston Churchill,Diana, Princess of Wales and the future king of England, Prince William. As a child George lived at the family’s seat, Althorp, and was tutored by his governess and his mother. In 1808 at the age of 9 he and his brother, Frederick, went up to Eton College to continue their education. At Eton George fell under the influence of the Reverend Richard Godley, a stalwart evangelical Anglican who introduced him to various practices of piety and asceticism. Dissatisfied with the education, and evangelical influences, of Eton, the Spencers removed him from the school at Christmas 1814. George’s education was then continued under the direction of one Reverend Blomfield of Buckinghamshire who both provided a more classical education for the boy and prepared him for the sacrament of confirmation. In October 1817 George went up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied Divinity. At Cambridge George enjoyed the company of a circle of friends who often spent their days in conversation, taking tea and playing poker. Lady Spencer reproved her son for what she took to be wasted time. However George took a first class honours degree upon going down from Cambridge in 1819. As was expected at the time George set off for his ‘Grand Tour’ with his parents after leaving University. Whilst George clearly enjoyed the cultural aspects of this tour, he was aghast at his encounter with continental Catholicism.
Returning from Europe George undertook studies to prepare for ordination in the Anglican communion. As the youngest son of an aristocratic family this was the expected career path that George would take. He studied the classical languages, as well as employing a Jewish scholar to teach him some Hebrew. Thus on 22 December 1822 George was ordained deacon. For two years George worked in a Sunday school, but also as a magistrate in Northampton and on June 13, 1824 George was ordained a priest. Thereafter his father presented him with the charge of the parish of Brington. George was totally committed to the care of his parish and spent his days visiting his parishioners, the sick and the dying and was often seen dispensing food, clothes and monies.
Conversion to Catholicism
During his time at Brington, George began to ask questions about his Anglican faith and doubts clouded his mind. He explored each and every tradition, from High Church to Evangelical and even in his own parish he met many Methodists and other non-conformists. George’s education was highly Scriptural and he struggled to find a basis in scripture for the doctrines contained in the 39 Articles. During a holiday on the Isle of Wight George began to read the writings of the early church Fathers, particularly Chrysostom and Gregory the Great. Through this reading, George gradually began to understand the difference between Catholic and Protestant thought.
From 1827, George began to make the acquaintance of several Catholic priests who encouraged George to continue with his reading. Soon afterward George received the first of three anonymous letters from a correspondent in Lille. The correspondent was aware of George’s troubles and suggested he give further thought to Catholicism. Finally, a meeting with Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle, a recent English convert to Catholicism, set George on the road to conversion. After several encounters with de Lisle and a number of priests, George resigned his living of Brington and on January 30, 1830 the Honourable and Reverend George Spencer was received into the Catholic Church.
In order to remove himself from the public eye and to lessen the blow to his parents, George went to Rome to study at the Venerable English College. Here he came into contact with Nicholas Wiseman, later Cardinal, who tutored him on matters of Catholic tradition. Whilst in Rome Spencer also met Dominic Barberi, the Passionist priest with such enthusiasm for the conversion of England to the Catholic faith. Father Dominic would later have a great part to play in George’s life. During his studies at Rome, George wrote an account of his conversion from the Protestant to the Catholic faith that was published in the Catholic journals and finally he was ordained deacon in January 1832 and on 26 May of that same year, he was made priest.
Crusade of Prayer for England
In August 1832 George returned to England to act as a curate to a church in Walsall where he was given particular care of a chapel in West Bromwich. Here he opened three schools, gave lectures on religion and made many converts, as well as his usual activities in the parish. George’s reputation as a preacher began to grow and soon he was preaching as far afield as St. Chad’s, Manchester and St. Mary’s, Derby. During a visit to France in 1838 George proposed a ‘Crusade of Prayer for the Conversion of England’ to Hyacinthe-Louis de Quélen, the Archbishop of Paris. Many of George’s influential friends joined this campaign and news of it spread throughout Britain and the Empire. In May 1839, he was appointed spiritual director to the seminarians at Oscott College and in the same month preached at St. Chad’s, Manchester on ‘The Great Importance of a Reunion Between the Catholics and the Protestants of England and the Method of Effecting It.’ In January 1840, George visited John Henry Newman at Oriel College, Oxford to ask Newman to join him in prayer for “unity in truth”. Newman sent Spencer away and refused even to see him, but later apologized for this in his Apologia;
“This feeling led me into the excess of being very rude to that zealous and most charitable man, Mr. Spencer, when he came to Oxford in January, 1840, to get Anglicans to set about praying for Unity. I myself then, or soon after, drew up such prayers; it was one of the first thoughts which came upon me after my shock, but I was too much annoyed with the political action of the members of the Roman Church in England to wish to have anything to do with them personally. So glad in my heart was I to see him when he came to my rooms, whither Mr. Palmer of Magdalen brought him, that I could have laughed for joy; I think I did; but I was very rude to him, I would not meet him at dinner, and that, (though I did not say so,) because I considered him ” in loco apostatx ” from the Anglican Church, and I hereby beg his pardon for it.”
George’s ‘Crusade’ did not only meet with Newman’s opposition, but within the Catholic Church in England where Dr Baines used a Pastoral Letter to reprimand the activities of ‘certain converts’. Whilst George limited his activities for a time he was soon back at work. In July 1842 he set off on a preaching tour of Ireland to beg the prayers of the Irish for their English brethren. Spencer was also greatly pleased to receive the blessing of Pope Pius IX who granted a number of indulgences for those who would pray for England. Spencer’s Crusade was the first association with the unity of Christians as its aim and it is with this in mind that he is often hailed as the ‘Apostle of Ecumenical Prayer’
Death and Cause For Beatification
Father Ignatius’ health had always been precarious at best and worn out with continual work, preaching and begging he suffered a heart attack and died alone in a ditch (the death he had often described as ideal for himself) on 1 October 1864. He was buried alongside Dominic Barberi and Elizabeth Prout in St. Anne’s, Sutton, St. Helens on October 4 and now rests in the shrine church there. When his body was exhumed in 1973 it was noted that Father Ignatius suffered from horrific arthritis, but that his tongue had not suffered any decay since the day of his death.
In March 2007, the Church announced that the first stage of Father Ignatius Spencer’s cause for beatification had been completed and that all the necessary documents had been forwarded to Rome. Fr. Ignatius was declared Venerable by the Holy See on December 6, 2010.