Bl. Philip Powel


Born in Wales in 1594, Philip Powel was sent to London to study law at age 16. A very capable lawyer named David Baker was his principal professor. Baker would later join the Catholic Church, enter the Benedictine monks under the name of Augustine Baker, and become one of the top spiritual writers of his century.

After graduation, Philip practiced civil law for several years. Business took him to Douay in Belgium, where there was a monastery of exiled English Catholic monks. Attracted by their lifestyle, he joined this community in 1614 and was ordained a priest. On March 7, 1622, they sent him back to England as a missionary. In those days British law forbade priests to minister in Britain. They ministered anyhow, but usually went about their risky job in disguise and under assumed names. Dom Philip’s aliases were Morgan (his mother’s name) and Prosser. For 16 months he lived with his former teacher, Dom Augustine Baker, also by now a missionary priest. The next 20 years he resided with two Catholic families in Somerset and Devon, in the rural southwest of England.

Civil war broke out between the Puritans and King Charles I in 1642. Catholics were on the side of the King, who had generally shown them kindness, and against the more thoroughly Protestant Puritans. Powel spent six months as a chaplain to the Catholics in the Cavalier regiment of General Goring.

When Goring’s army disbanded, Powel set sail for Wales in a ship. But on February 22, 1646, Puritans boarded the ship. Some crewmen recognized Dom Philip as a zealous Catholic missionary. He admitted to being a priest, so the Puritans imprisoned him in the hold and delivered him to the police in London. Jailed there in hard circumstances, he was brought before the judges two or three times, solely on the basis of his own admission he was a priest. Like a true lawyer, he sought to escape judgment on the basis of legal technicalities.

When a judgment of death was finally rendered, however, Dom Philip gave public thanks before the Court for the privilege of the sentence. He had meanwhile impressed all. His fellow prisoners drew up a testimonial to his virtue: 23 of the signers were Protestants, six were Catholics whom he had reconciled to their faith. When the man sent to inform him of his death sentence was too overcome to read it, Philip steadied him and then called for a glass of dry sack (a Spanish wine) with which to toast his health: “Oh what am I,” cried Philip, “that God thus honors me and will have me to die for his sake?”

At the scaffold on Tyburn Hill, Philip, in his short speech, said that this was the happiest day of his life, for he was dying for no other reason than that he was a priest and a monk. As he prayed, another Benedictine in the audience, Dom Robert Anderton, silently gave him absolution for his sins. Only after Powel was dead was his body disemboweled and quartered and then buried in the churchyard of Moorfield. It was June 30, 1646. An associate bought his bloodstained clothing for four pounds sterling. They were precious relics. He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

To be executed solely for one’s priesthood --truly worth a toast of gratitude!

-Father Robert F. McNamara