The Simple Saints

My previous posts about colorful Victorians have covered a wide range of eccentric entrepreneurs, con artists, and whatnot. Today’s subjects’ eccentricity—if I dare call it that—consisted in dogged devotion to religion and unwavering dedication to doing the tasks they set for themselves. The two of them are remarkably similar.

On January 5, 1860, John Neumann collapsed on a Philadelphia street and died on the sidewalk. Four years later Ignatius Spencer (aka George Spencer) collapsed on a street near Edinburgh, Scotland, and died in a ditch. Both died alone, worn out from hard work, and doing what they loved.

Neumann drew my attention because he’s our local saint and was bishop of Philadelphia when he died. Considering the state of the modern American hierarchy that might tempt readers to dismiss him as one of those fancy-dressed princes of the church perched in a mansion, festooned with a ring for folks to kiss. They would be wrong. An immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic, Neumann arrived in New York in 1836 with one suit of clothes and a dollar in his pocket. No one in his home country would ordain him due to a surplus of priests so he set out for the new world uninvited. Three weeks later the bishop of New York, having discovered on his doorstep a seminary graduate who could speak the language of the many German immigrants pouring into his diocese, ordained him and sent him off to the rural missions of western New York. That story alone endeared him to me.

Broadway about the time Neumann arrived

For over four years Neumann served the people of a parish that stretched from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border, moving constantly from place to place as needed, preaching, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, recruiting teachers and so on. He had to travel by horse, a challenge for man who had never done that before and who, apparently, had legs to short to reach the stirrups causing much laughter. Just because something was difficult didn’t stop him from doing it.

Neumann eventually joined a religious order, primarily because of the isolation and loneliness of his situation overwhelmed him. He went on to do parish work in Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and to be the superior of his order in the United States. One suspects he rose in the ranks primarily because he could be relied on to get the job done, whether it was caring for the sick and the poor, setting up the entire catholic school system, or establishing churches. He learned several languages—even Gaelic— to more effectively serve Philadelphia’s immigrant populations.

Anti-Catholic Riot, Philadelphia 1844

It was his humility and frugality that drew my admiration, however. As bishop he opened his house to the poor, and deflected criticism about possible waste by unworthy recipients saying, “what I give, I give to God.” He often gave away things he received as gifts himself. He walked everywhere instead of riding—as he was doing the day he died. When he died he still wore his one pair of boots, the ones he brought with him when he came to the U.S.

George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer

Ignatius Spencer could match Neumann for frugality, lugging a battered suitcase while he traveled the country by train preaching and stubbornly traveling third class. His poverty is an even more remarkable trait considering he belonged to one the wealthiest families in the United Kingdom. He was born as George Spencer in Admiralty House in 1799, the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and grew up at the Spencer ancestral home at Althorp, Yes, that Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried. He is her great-great-great uncle. He is also Winston Churchill’s great-uncle.

Althorp during George’s boyhood

As a younger son of an aristocratic family, George was always intended for the church, as was traditional, and was ordained an Anglican priest after studies at Cambridge. His father gave him the living at the parish of Brington, near Althrop. That was also common in aristocratic families. What was not usual was the passion with which he embraced his vocation. By all reports he abandoned wealth and privilege to devote himself to prayer, the spiritual needs of his congregation, and care for the poor. Within six years, however, he converted to Catholicism, causing something of a scandal in Victorian England. He later joined the Passionist order, taking the name Ignatius.

Ignatius Spencer

Prayers for unity of the Anglican Church with the Catholic Church became the hallmark of his preaching, and he was known to visit influential people using family connections, urging them to work for it. While his eccentric and unexpected behavior embarrassed his family, his father continued to provide money, which Ignatius gave over to the bishop for use by the church or gave to the poor. He wore a simple habit and reputedly avoided luxury of all kinds, although he accepted hospitality of a family member once to recover from illness in the years before he joined the order. There are stories of him giving away all the clothes except what he wore, stories of him walking for miles bringing food to the poor, and stories him walking out with pockets full of alms every day to visit the sick and the poor.

I’ve always been intrigued by the difference between the struggles of actual human beings who achieve heroic virtue and the marble statue images of saints we end up with. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a novel centered on a very flawed medieval merchant, later canonized, and some modern-day pilgrims who read about his life: real virtue vs. hagiography. Perhaps I’ll write it one day.

These two struck me as remarkable. Possibly because their lives are within two centuries of ours, we can see them as the flesh and blood and, yes, eccentric men that they were. Neumann is formally recognized as a saint; Spencer’s cause is in process. Placed against other colorful adventurers I’ve written about—Thomas Waghorn the entrepreneur, Gregor MacGregor the fraudster, Rosa Bonheur who dressed as she pleased, or Samuel Shepheard the hotel magnet—Spenser and Neumann appear just as passionate about what they did, just as extreme in their decisions, but, I like to think, a tad more admirable than some.

For more information see:

About Saint John Neumann (Slide Show), National Shrine of John Neumann, Phildelphia

“Father Ignatius Spencer,” The West Bromwich Local History Society

Sr. Marcellina CP, “Ignatius Spencer,” on Teachers’ Enterprise in Religious Education,

Princess Diana’s Priest-Relative Is a Step Closer to Sainthood, The National Catholic Register Sept 1, 2016

Saint John Neumann, Franciscan Media

Caroline Warfield is a writer of family-centered historical romance, generally set in the Regency and Victorian eras. She previously posted a series of eccentric Victorians on History Imagined.  She is currently expanding her novellas “Roses in Picardy” and “The Last Post,” which take place in and around Amiens, France, in 1916 and 1919, into a full length novel.

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