Venerable Ignatius of St. Paul was born George Spencer in 1799.
George Spencer was born into the upscale Spencer family of Althorp, Northamptonshire, on December 21, 1799. The Spencers, considered one of the great English families for centuries, were blessed by wealth and status and well-known in politics and government. Centuries later, a member of this family, Princess Diana, would capture hearts around the world.
When George was born, his father, the second Earl of Spencer, was Lord of the Admiralty. Young George was raised in a home the size of a palace located on the upscale 13,000-acre Althorp estate. (This was the site of Princess Diana’s burial in 1997.) He was schooled at Eton and Cambridge and became a priest of the Church of England, ordained in 1824. He was a committed priest, and he worked hard to help others.
Doubts about the Church of England
However, he began to have doubts about the Church of England and started to pray very hard for guidance. He was attracted to the Catholic Church, and his initial thoughts frightened him. In 1827 he met several Catholic priests who encouraged him to pray and reflect and let the Holy Spirit guide him. George decided to convert to Catholicism, a decision that his family could not comprehend. Having rejected a life of immense wealth and comfort, he went to Rome and began studies in the English College. In 1832 he was ordained a Catholic priest.
While in Rome, Father George Spencer met Father Dominic Barberi. Father Barberi was a Passionist priest committed to the conversion of England. He was also instrumental in the conversion of St. John Henry Newman. Father Barberi and Father Spencer became close friends. In 1847 Father George Spencer took the Passionist habit and the name Ignatius of St. Paul.
From luxury to poverty—a happy choice
The man who had been born into luxury was now at the other end of the spectrum. He was sleeping on a bed of straw and spent long hours in prayer and meditation. Fasting and abstaining from meat three days a week was the norm among the Passionists, and getting up in the middle of the night to pray the Liturgy of the Hours was common. Their habits were made of very coarse material, and they wore sandals, even in winter.
Father Spencer ministered to the poorest of the poor. Many lived in caves dug out of the piles of dirt leftover from the day’s labor. He became a preacher and used the new rail network to travel throughout Britain to preach missions and administer the sacraments.
Father George was an outstanding homilist, and his reputation spread. People would come from all over to hear him preach. The people would wait for hours to go to confession to him. Father George would usually spend three days at a place giving a mission. He would offer Mass at 5:00 a. m. and then hear confessions for the rest of the day, only taking time out for one meal.
He put on about 40 of these missions a year. There were occasions when he was so exhausted that he would collapse and need a few days off to recuperate. He was known to often say, “I will not rest until I have found the last person who does not love God.”
He would give the “shirt off his back.”
Even when he was a minister of the Church of England, he would give away anything of value he might have. He would literally give the poor the “shirt off his back.” Upon embracing the Passionist Order, he took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He walked wherever he could and carried his meager possession in cloth bags.
Toward the end of 1864, he was in Scotland, and it was a Friday, the last day of a mission. He had heard confessions until way past midnight and then was up to say Mass at 6. He heard more confessions and then hurried to catch the 9:15 train to Edinburgh. He was scheduled to begin another mission that same day.
He had to get off that train to connect with another to complete his journey. An old friend lived nearby, and Father George realized he had time to stop and say hello. He left his luggage and hurried across a field towards his friend’s house. He met a young boy and stopped to chat for a minute. As the two of them said goodbye, Father George Spencer took only a few steps before he collapsed and died from a massive heart attack. The date was October 1, 1864. Father Ignatius of St. Paul, formerly Father George Spencer, was 64 years old.
On Saturday, February 21, 2012, Pope Francis officially recognized Fr. Ignatius of St. Paul as a person of “heroic virtue.” He will now be known as Venerable Ignatius of St. Paul.
We ask him to pray for all of us.