St. Nicholas Owen

(died 1606)

No fiction can match for excitement the adventures of the Catholic missionaries to England during the post-Reformation centuries when they moved about under constant sentence of death.

The missionary priests could not have carried on their task or eluded the police without the aid of loyal Catholic laymen and laywomen. One of the humblest of these was a carpenter known as “Little John” or “Little Michael” because he was so small. Actually, his name was Nicholas Owen. A devout layman, he was admitted to the Jesuits as a lay brother only around 1580.

The mission to Catholics in England, ministered by Jesuits and secular priests from Flanders and from Rome, had to be conducted with the greatest secrecy. The priests would come into England disguised, and go about the country under assumed names. Well-to-do Catholics, at great risk, would receive them at their homes, and gather together at their coming all the other Catholics of the neighborhood. Since the police were on constant watch, this had to be done with great caution. To catch a fugitive priest saying Mass was the police corps’ greatest hope. It would lead not only to the imprisonment of the priest but to severe penalties for the host and all Catholic participants.

For eighteen years, Nicholas Owen gave all the help he could to the superiors of the Jesuit mission. He developed his own particular skill as a carpenter and mason into a marvelous talent for constructing cleverly concealed “hiding holes” in which the visiting priests could take refuge if the constables arrived. Some of these hideouts still exist in certain of the old English Catholic country mansions. They were brilliantly planned and equipped, and provided with almost invisible entrances and exits.

Since “Little John” did all the work himself, he alone had a key to their whereabouts. Jesuit Missionary Father John Gerard had the highest praise for Owen’s remarkable contribution. Not only did this carpenter save the lives of many priests, he stated; he also preserved hundreds of other Catholics throughout England from confiscation and death. “I verily think,” said Father Gerard, “that no man can be said to have done more good of all those who labored in the English vineyard.”

In 1606, Brother John was finally discovered in one of his own hiding holes. He came out voluntarily, meaning to imply to the police that he was a priest, so that the real priests hidden still deeper in the hole might escape.

Nicholas/John was eventually taken to the Tower of London. Now, this poor man had developed a hernia, and as such, was exempted by law from any torture. But the torturer, one Wade, bitterly anti-Catholic, ignored the law and stretched him on a “rack” day after day. Owen refused to answer any questions. Eventually, on March 2, 1606, the hernia burst under the pressures of the torment, and the little carpenter died in agony shortly afterward.

A government report was given out that he had shown remorse for his “crimes” and stabbed himself to death! Nobody believed this lame and even incredible announcement.

Pope Paul VI canonized Nicholas Owen in 1970. He was a martyr to that aspect of the virtue of charity that Isaiah praised so justly: “sheltering the oppressed and the homeless.” (58:7).

--Father Robert F. McNamara