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Edward J. Sponga (February 12, 1918 – May 3, 2000) was a former Jesuit priest in the Society of Jesus. Sponga served as the 16th President of the University of Scranton from 1963 until 1965.[1] Sponga made headlines when he left the priesthood in July 1968 in order to marry Mary Ellen Barrett, a divorced mother of three.[2]


Edward J. Sponga was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[2] He joined the Jesuit order when he was just 17 years old.[2] He later earned a doctorate in philosophy at Fordham University.[2] He was known for his strong advocacy of reform within the Society of Jesus.[2]

Sponga was named head of the former Woodstock College, a well respected Jesuit seminary in Maryland, in 1957.[2] Under Sponga's supervision, Woodstock College recruited a number of well known theologians, including Father John Courtney Murray, S.J.[2]

Sponga was named Provincial Superior, or leader, of the Jesuits' Maryland province in 1960.[2] He supervised around 800 Jesuit priests, lay brothers and seminarians within the Maryland province.[2] The province geographically included a large swath of territory from Ohio to North Carolina.[2]

Sponga briefly left his position in order to serve as the 16th President of the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1963 until 1965.[1] He regained his post as head of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus following his departure from Scranton. Sponga continued to head the Jesuit province until 1968, when he abruptly left the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic priesthood.[2]


In July 1968, Sponga surprised many within the Jesuits when he unexpectedly left the Jesuits and broke his vow of celibacy in order to marry a 33 year-old divorced nurse named Mary Ellen Barrett.[2] Sponga was 50 years old when he married Barrett.[2] Barrett had three children from her previous marriage.[2]

Barrett and Sponga had met several years before their marriage when she had sought "spiritual counseling" from Sponga.[2] However, their relationship eventually became much more intimate. Barrett was granted a divorce from her previous husband in February 1968 and retained custody of all three of her children.[2] The nature of Sponga's relationship with Barrett was unknown to most of his fellow Jesuits until their marriage several months later.[2]

Sponga was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for marrying Barrett.[2] However, in a 1968 interview with Time Magazine, Sponga stated that he still considered himself Catholic and said he would continue to attend Mass.[2] He also reaffirmed his belief that a vow of celibacy was a good value for Roman Catholic priests.[2]

According to Time Magazine, Sponga was the highest ranking American ecclesiastic to leave the Catholic Church between 1966 and 1968.[2] Approximately 350 American priests left the Church during that two-year period.[2]


Preceded by
John J. Long S.J.
President of the University of Scranton
1963 - 1965
Succeeded by
Aloysius C. Galvin S.J.


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