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April 5, 2024 – When he was asked by a student-interviewer at the campus newspaper, Her Campus Emmanuel, whether he lived all his life in Boston, Fr. John Spencer, SJ, replied,

No, actually. I was born and bred in Boston and went to BC High, and then I entered the Jesuits right from high school. Then the Jesuits sent me all over the place to study. I lived in New York for a while, Ireland, France, and on an Indian reservation on the Canadian border. I was in Boston for most of my studies, although I did study French for a year in Paris. [French] is what I taught for a number of years, originally. Each Jesuit has to teach for a period of time and I taught up in Lenox, Mass. [at Cranwell School]. I also ran a drug and alcohol rehab for a number of years, taught at BC for 13 years, had a therapy practice, and was on the reservation. I’ve been all over the place!

After this sweeping answer, the interviewer asked Fr. Spencer where was his favorite place to live. He replied with continued zest,

Well, I really enjoyed the reservation. Having grown up in the city, the reservation was really different. It was all dirt roads into the reservation and coming from the city I had to make a big adjustment, but I learned to really love it. I loved it on the reservation.

 

Fr. John Spencer was born in the Dorchester section of Boston on March 16, 1947, and attended nearby Boston College High School from 1960-1964. In 1965, just out of high school, he applied to the Society of Jesus as a brother candidate, dividing his novitiate and juniorate years of 1965-1967 between Shadowbrook in Lenox, Mass., and St. Andrew on Hudson in N.Y. His first assignments were enrolling as a student at Boston College and working in the Jesuit Mission Office 1967-68.

In 1971, Fr. Spencer graduated from Boston College with a B.A. in romance languages. Drawing on his Boston College major, he taught French at Cranwell Prep from 1971-1973. In 1973, he enrolled as a special student at Weston School of Theology, doing the theological studies to prepare him for ministry in the Catholic Church.

At this point in his Jesuit life, Fr. Spencer encountered several difficulties: there were almost no other Jesuit brothers of his generation to be his peers, and his pastoral interest in counseling was rare among brothers. To resolve such questions, he took a leave of absence from the Society of Jesus during 1974-75. Returning to the Society with the conviction he was called to be a priest and with the encouragement of his religious superiors, he changed grades from brother candidate to priest candidate; he completed his M. Div. in 1978. In 1979, Fr. Spencer was ordained priest by Bishop John Mulcahy; he spent a pastoral year serving Corpus Christi parish in Auburndale (a section of Newton).

The pastoral assignments that followed ordination were a blizzard of assignments and specialized training, including Master of Social Work (MSW) from Boston University in 1984, a degree requiring field work and hours of supervised counseling. With this degree in hand and with increasing pastoral experience, Fr. Spencer spent the years 1985-1990 serving St. Ann’s Indian Mission in Princeton, Maine, continuing the Jesuit ministry to Native Americans, in this case the Penobscot people. His responsibilities were wide: addiction counselor; pastor, and teaching at College St. Joseph in Calais.

In 1991, he returned to Boston, in the first year preparing his social work thesis, and in the next two years engaging in a variety of ministries, mostly caring for sufferers from chemical dependency but also involving some teaching. In 1993, Fr. Spencer was appointed Director of the Jesuit Urban Center located in the historic Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception. The Urban Center welcomed underserved Catholics in the Boston area, many of them gay. After the Urban Center closed in 2007, Fr. Spencer practiced as a psychotherapist and served as a lecturer at the Boston College School of Social Work. When the Jesuit Collaborative was set up, he continued as a psychotherapist within that umbrella organization (2008-2016).

In 2016, he received an invitation from Sister Janet Eisner, S.N.D., the President of Emmanuel College in Boston. Sister Janet had led Emmanuel during its transition from an all-women’s college to a coeducational institution with an orientation to preparing its graduates for the professions. Though Fr. Spencer was 68 years old when the invitation came, he accepted the invitation that involved three major tasks: Vice-President for Mission and Ministry, College Chaplain, and Director of the Cardinal O’Malley Center for Mission and Ministry at the College. Fr. Spencer’s interview (printed at the beginning of this obituary) was done at this time and gives a sense of his understanding of ministry. During his time at Emmanuel (2011-2020) Fr. Spencer resided at Loyola House in Boston.

In May 2020, declining health made it necessary to move to Campion Center in Weston, Mass. By this time, Fr. Spencer’s journey as a Jesuit had led him along paths to a ministry where, thanks to his skills and unusual personal qualities, he was uniquely equipped to provide healing, consolation, and friendship to neglected and marginalized people. Fr. Spencer allowed his own openness and fragility to teach him compassion toward others and his extraordinary kindness toward all. Friends recall Fr. Spencer as an excellent administrator, perhaps because his first thoughts were about others, not himself. His intelligence expressed itself in a spontaneous yet shrewd relationship to others. Fr. Spencer was called to eternal life on Tues., April 2, 2024.