Saturday, September 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 37 ~ St. Nicholas Owen

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been of long-standing interest to me. Of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen makes a special appeal to my imagination. 

In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — Nicholas appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. He was from a staunchly Catholic working-class family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England -- this, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a humble and self-effacing man of discretion and trustworthiness. 

He was also a master carpenter and mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests at the time. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen. A number of his projects still survive, and I hope to one day have an opportunity to tour through the English countryside to see a few of them.

One of the most dramatic episodes in Nicholas' life was when he helped a priest, Fr John Gerard, to escape by night from the Tower of London. The story of how this came about, involving oranges, loose bricks, and a line strung over the Tower's moat, is gripping, and can be found in Fr Gerard's autobiography (an essential read for those interested in Catholicism under Elizabeth).

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized whom they had captured, they had him interrogated in the Tower of London. Because of his close relationship with Fr Garnet he was considered a high-value prisoner, and the fate of many English Catholics rested on his shoulders. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of the authorities, not having revealed anything to compromise the safety of the recusants. The authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but few, I think, have given it much credence.

The Church certainly has not. St. Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is March 22.

St Nicholas has become an important saint to me, despite the relative poverty of knowledge about him. I think of him often and admire him, and even adopted him as patron saint of one of my sons. In part this admiration is rooted in the aura of gallant adventure that surrounds the secret hiding places he devised and the world of subterfuge and misdirection of which they were parts. Stories about him can be relished, and in my experience children love to hear them. But there is another reason too: St Nicholas lived at a time in which faithful religious belief and practice faced formidable challenges, and although I do not foresee us in the modern West facing forces comparably dire, I do think that, in my lifetime and in the lifetimes of my children, the sheep will more and more find themselves among wolves. Insofar as this is true, St Nicholas models one way that we can respond, for he was not only a man of humility and courage, but a man who lived Christ's injunction to be as cunning as a serpent and as gentle as a dove. 

St Nicholas Owen, pray for us!


To learn more about St Nicholas Owen, one could consult a recent biography  (my notes, from which this post was largely adapted, here).  A very interesting book has been written about priest-holes in England, many of which are thought to be Nicholas' handiwork. There are also a few toys for the infant in your life.

Craig Burrell, another friend from Light on Dark Water, has his own wonderful blog, All Manner of Thingwhich is one of the three blogs I read at this point, and where you can find out about everything from gravitational waves to opera to Antarctica (which was an especially fascinating series of posts).

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

1 comment:

  1. I ought to have also said (which I've just confirmed) that the image at the top of this post, which comes from the cover of the biography by Tony Reynolds, is by Matthew Alderman. His site is well worth perusing for images of saints (and other things too).