The entire world is remembering Diana, Princess of Wales, on the twentieth anniversary of her death in a car crash in Paris at the age of 36.
Diana has often been referred to as a “secular saint,” both due to her work with HIV/Aids patients and the victims of landmines, and the public devotion she received. But not many people know there may be a real saint in her family.
The princess’s great-great-great uncle was Passionist Father Ignatius Spencer, who scandalized Victorian society by first converting to Catholicism in 1830, and then by being ordained a priest less than three years later.
Spencer given the name George (like his great-great-great-great grand-nephew, Prince George of Cambridge) in 1799. He was the son of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and a member of the fifth wealthiest family in England. (Spencer is also the great-uncle of Winston Churchill.)
He grew up on the Spencer family estate at Althorp, where Diana is now buried.
Originally ordained a priest in the Church of England, Spencer began studying the writings of the early Church Fathers. Much like John Newman a decade later, this lead him on a path to the Catholic Church.
(In fact, when he joined the Passionists in 1847, he was welcomed to the order by Italian Passionist Father Dominic Barberi – who was beatified in 1963 – who had received Newman into the Catholic Church. It was when he entered the order that he took the religious name ‘Ignatius of St. Paul’.)
Like his royal relative, Spencer spent much of his time among the poor and excluded of his time: He ministered to Irish immigrants mired in poverty in the Midlands of England.
He was also a famed preacher, and used Britain’s growing rail network to hold three-day missions throughout the country.
He spread the story of a fledging lay movement in the Church of France, which was visiting and caring for the poor, and worked to have it established in England: It was the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“His visionary thing was greater lay involvement in the life of the church,” said Father Ben Lodge, the postulator for Spencer’s cause for sainthood. “We’re used to the idea now of lay involvement, but he was 150 years ahead of his time in that regard.”
Lodge, speaking to Ozanam News, said Spencer had a form of spina bifida, and according to doctors, the amount of walking he did would have been excruciatingly painful.
“They told me that if he had to walk more than two miles he’d know all about it,” he said.
Spencer died of a heart attack on October 1, 1864. He was walking along a road after giving a mission in Scotland, and was found in a ditch. (According to his brother Passionists, he had often prayed that he would die in such a way.)
He is buried in the Church St. Anne and Blessed Dominic outside of Liverpool, alongside Barberi and Sister Elizabeth Prout, the foundress of the Passionist Sisters.
Spencer’s cause was opened in 1973, and in 2010 the Vatican declared he had lived a life of “heroic virtue” – allowing him to be called a “Servant of God.”
Currently, the evidence necessary to declare Spencer “Venerable” is being reviewed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In order to be beatified, he would then need for a miracle to be declared due to his intercession; and then another to be canonized, and declared a saint.
The Passionist Order said on its website in December that they hope he would be declared Venerable in the “next few months.”