St. John Ogilvie


When the Reformation was introduced into Scotland, the line was drawn not so much between Catholics and Anglicans as between Catholics and Presbyterian Calvinists.

St. John Ogilvie is a case in point. His father, Baron Ogilvie, raised him as a Calvinist, and sent him when 13 to France to be educated. In France, however, it was customary for Catholic and Calvinist scholars to debate religion. Attending these conferences, John came to appreciate the Catholic view, and to admire those Catholics who were willing to die for it. He therefore became a Catholic in 1596, aged 17, and continued his education at the Scots College in Louvain; then with the Scots Benedictines at Regensburg, Germany; then with the Jesuits at Olmuetz in Moravia. In 1599 he joined the Jesuits, and was ordained a priest in Paris in 1610. Then he determined to devote his life to rescuing Catholicism in his homeland.

In 1613 his Jesuit superiors sent Father John to Scotland. Because of the harsh laws against the entry of Catholic priests into Great Britain, he traveled in civilian clothes under the name of John Watson, posing now as a horse-dealer, now as a returning soldier. His first efforts were discouraging. The Catholic nobles had mostly joined the Reform under pressure, and were embarrassed to have him around. Eventually he returned to Paris to ask advice. His superior, Father Gordon, scolded him for leaving Scotland and ordered him to go back there at once, which he did.

Now he began to have better fortune. A prominent Catholic in Edinburgh let him live with him, and he began to gather Catholics together and insist that they cease being wishy-washy and profess their faith with vigor. He even undertook the risky ministry to Catholics in prison. In 1614 he went to Glasgow. Here he was harbored by Mrs. Marion Walker, a brave widow who would later die in prison for having assisted him. He was now having more and more success in reconciling Catholics to the Church. The Catholics were stronger in spirit.

However, on October 14,1614, a spy attending his Mass at Glasgow denounced him to the local Anglican archbishop, Spottiswoode. The archbishop scolded him for saying a Catholic Mass in a “reformed” city, and even hit him. Ogilvie replied, “You act as a hangman, sir, and not as a bishop, striking me.” But the servants and citizens pounced on the Jesuit, and he might have been killed had not a nobleman present called them off. Put on trial, he was brutally tortured to make him betray the names of his Catholic friends.

Meanwhile, his captors spread the word abroad that he actually had given them a list of Scottish Catholics. The knowledge of this lie caused even greater grief to the tormented prisoners.

Failing their purpose, the authorities brought him to trial again on a different charge: that of denying the king’s jurisdiction in spiritual matters. King James I himself drew up a list of five questions to answer, all bearing on relations between church and state. They were so trickily worded that whatever answer he gave could be used against Father John. Nevertheless, he was able to write letters about his mistreatment and sneak them out of prison.

When he was brought before his judges for the last time, they told the priest that he was being tried not for celebrating Mass but for the answers he had given to the king’s questions. Father Ogilvie declared that he would die in defense of the king’s civil authority, but he could not obey him in spiritual matters. He was nonetheless condemned for high treason and hanged at Glasgow Cross on March 10, 1615. Even on the scaffold he was offered freedom and a fat living if he would abjure his Catholicism. This made it all the clearer that he died for his faith, not his politics. Even the crowd around the gallows murmured against the injustice of the execution. He was buried secretly in a criminal’s plot, so no relics remain.

When the cause for the canonization of the English martyrs was introduced, the name of John Ogilvie was omitted, for the Scots Catholics wished to have their own process. Pope Pius XI declared him “blessed” in 1929 and Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1976.

The only official Scottish martyr of the Reformation, St. John Ogilvie is the glory of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

--Father Robert F.McNamara