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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Nicholas Owen

September 21, 2021 saints No Comments


First you see him…and then you don’t. Dangerous times call for dangerous measures. During the reign of Elizabeth I and James I of England, St. Nicholas Owen was the expert at creating what became known as “priests’ holes,” or secret hiding spots for clergy. Located in the homes of wealthy recusant Catholics, these were hidden compartments or locations where priests could hide at a moment’s notice when agents came hunting Catholics. If one were caught, as Catholicism was treason, the price paid was martyrdom.
With King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, when he declared himself the head of the Church of England, an anti-Catholic persecution began. To be a Catholic was a crime. To go to Mass was a crime. To accept the Pope instead of the King as head of the Church was treason. A Catholic priest was not even allowed on English soil. While the Popes were far from shy themselves and quite clear in their excommunication of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, these monarchs destroyed what was once a Catholic nation. Catholics had hoped that King James I would be more tolerant, but this was sadly not the case. When he ascended the throne he, too, would persecute the Church.
After the Gunpowder Plot, hostility toward Catholics increased and James I also demanded the Oath of Allegiance as had his predecessors. In return, Pope Pius V issued a condemnation of the English oath (which stated the king, not the Pope, was head of the Church) and James I responded that to reject the oath was “craft of the devil.”
Recusant families often refused to attend Anglican services and paid heavy fines levied as punishment instead. Viewed with suspicion and knowing that the Church had gone underground, they were watched by the monarch’s spies to see if they harbored priests, or attended secret Masses.
Into this world was born Nicholas Owen, in about 1562. Gifted with a unique ability, he was able to visualize in existing structures areas that could be created, carved out, hidden…ways to create secret spaces completely undetectable to the enemy. Each location was different — some houses even had several — and these were known only to Nicholas and the house’s owner. To this day no one knows how many he created, for the only safety lay in secrecy.
Born in Oxford, Owen came from a family of Catholic recusants. Two of his brothers became priests. Nicholas followed in the footsteps of his father, a carpenter, and was apprenticed to a joiner. Clearly, he also learned something of masonry — both skills were critical in his future work.
Nicholas was much shorter than the average male height, nearly a dwarf. Perhaps this accounts for his alias, “Little John.” He walked with a limp, due to a leg broken and poorly set. He had a hernia, which would later play a role in his death. In 1580 he officially joined the Jesuits as a lay brother, one of the order’s first, according to Henry More, the great-grandson of St. Thomas More. And for 18 years, Nicholas would be the foremost architect and builder of priest holes across England.
Nicholas would be arrested three times over the course of his lifetime. First, for protesting the innocence of St. Edmund Campion, for whom he had worked. He was released. The second time in 1597, he was arrested along with Fr. John Gerard. Not being known to authorities yet, Nicholas was released when Catholics paid a bribe for his release. His next deed was memorable — he arranged the escape of Fr. Gerard from the Tower! A friendly jailer allowed Fr. Gerard, who was being badly tortured, to daily leave his cell to meet and say Mass for another imprisoned Catholic. One night they climbed to the cell’s roof by pre-arrangement and caught a rope thrown over the moat, climbing to safety. Fr. Gerard still managed later to warn the jailer not to show for work next day — he would have been received rather poorly — and the jailer later converted.
But on the third occasion when Nicholas was arrested, he was known as a prolific building of priests’ holes. As Fr. Gerard would say of Nicholas, “I verily think no man can be said to have done more good for all who labored in the English vineyard.” At a moment’s notice, a call could come that the Queen’s men were at the door, and a priest would dart into on his priest holes to hide, sometimes for many days, as they searched.
These “holes” were sometimes just that, a space barely big enough for a priest to fit into, but other times much larger. And each time Owen altered their designs. They were different sizes, different places, with different ways of getting inside. He performed all the labor at night. During the day he continued as a carpenter. Only he and the owner knew the truth — for spies were everywhere.
Fr. Gerard wrote: “[Nicholas] was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular, and of the estates also of these seculars, which had been lost and forfeited many times over if the priests had been taken in their houses; of which some have escaped not once but many times in several searches that have come to the same house, and sometimes five or six priests together at the same time.”
Fr. Tanner who summarized contemporary information on Nicholas wrote: “With incomparable skill he knew how to devise a place of safety for priests in subterranean passages, to hide them between walls, to bury them in impenetrable recesses. But what was more difficult of accomplishment, he so disguised the entrances to these as to make them most unlike what they really were. Moreover, he kept these places so close a secret with himself, he would never disclose their existence to anyone else.”
Eventually, he was captured in 1606 at Hindlip Hall, along with a servant of one of two Jesuit priests in hiding there at the time. Long since gone, Hindlip was rather unique — it had 12 priest holes! It is believed Nicholas came out of hiding with a Catholic servant, to help distract attention from two other Catholic priests still safely secreted. Unfortunately, the plan did not work, and the two priests were eventually discovered. All would be killed.
Nicholas was tortured in the Tower, hung by manacles from the ceiling, with weights attached to his feet. He was known to have a hernia, and to keep the intestinal tissue “protected,” an iron band was girded around him. Yet after a month of horrible suffering, this band instead ruptured the hernia and he bled to death. His torturers invented a story that he had committed “suicide.”
During all his torture, Nicholas betrayed not one single secret. He invoked the names of Jesus and Mary, as he must have done so often in his work, praying as he built his secret passages behind walls, in sewers, above attics and behind fireplaces. In the end, St. Nicholas Owen took the secrets with him. His life is still largely one shrouded in mystery: We do not know how many priests’ holes he built, nor the numbers he saved. But in the end at the Tower, like Christ before him, he died for them all as “he gave up his spirit.”
He was canonized in 1970 and his feast day is March 3.

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