On a mission with Father Ben

ROMAN Catholic priest, Father Ben Lodge, from Newton Stewart is busy packing his bags this weekend before heading off to The Vatican in Rome to continue his 18-year quest to have 19th century priest, Father Ignatius of St Paul, canonised.

Father Ben has devoted much of his spare time to deciphering the diarys of Father Ignatius - no mean task - as his writing was so minute he recorded six months on one page!

Father Ben says that Father Ignatius was 120 years ahead of his time in his work for Christian unity and he certainly makes a fascinating subject being a ancestor of both Princess Diana and Winston Churchill.

Born in 1799 into one of the wealthiest families in Britain, the Honourable George Spencer arrived in the world at Admiralty House, Whitehall as his father was the first Lord of the Admiralty at the time.

The youngest of eight children he was educated at Eton and Cambridge and mixed with the great and the good of 19th century society including Lord Nelson, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was also a witness to the Industrial Revolution and the enormous social changes that brought.

Yet, George Spencer turned his back on a life of wealth, position and privilege to dedicate his life to Christian unity and prayer and his conviction that all Christians, no matter what faith, are called to be holy. A belief which sees him recognised as the first apostle for unity in Britain.

But his conversion to Catholicism was not popular with his family, and his brother forbade him to speak to anyone not of the same social class as the Spencers in case he tried to convert them!

Ignatius became a humble Catholic priest in the Midlands, building churches mainly with his own money. Having established his reputation as a preacher, he also undertook gruelling tours of Ireland and the Continent with the details of every journey, every town and every sermon dutifully recorded in his diaries,

George opted to enter the Passionists, an order with strict and severe rules with an emphasis on poverty. Only half of the year could be spent on apolistic work the other half on prayer.

Ignatius suffered from back trouble all his life, later diagnosed after his death as a form of spinabifida. But he never gave into his condition, one day walking thirty-three miles back home because he forgot his return train fare, a trip that Father Ben reflects must have left him in agony.

After a life dedicated to prayer, at the age of 64 Ignatius got his wish to die like Jesus “in a ditch, unseen and unknown.” On October 1, 1864, he was in Scotland on a train heading for Leith. With time to spare he decided to stop off at Carstairs and visit his friend and godson Robert Monteith. He never made it, collapsing and dying in a ditch a hundred yards from his destination.

That same Robert Monteith paid for the building of the Catholic Church in Wigtown and his sister, who lived in Newton Stewart, paid for the stained glass window and the tiled floor of the Newton Stewart church.

For Father Ben the next step is to have the 24 volumes he has compiled of Ignatius’s diaries examined by theologians in Rome. He will then be instructed in how best to write the life story of the priest set in the right historical context. If all goes smoothly the cardinals in Rome will issue a declaration and Ignatius is one step closer to eventual sainthood.

After dedicating 18 years of his life to the cause all Father Ben needs then is a miracle – or two!