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The Catholic Defender: Saint John Ogilvie



1580 – 10 March 1615


was a Scottish Jesuit martyr. For his work as a priest in service to a persecuted Catholic community in 17th century Scotland,was hanged for his faith, he became the only post-Reformation Scottish saint.


John Ogilvie (1579-1615) performed ministry in his native Scotland for only 11 months after he returned to his homeland following 22 years abroad. He is the only canonized Scottish martyr from the time of the Reformation, and was only 36 when he gave his life for Christ.


John Ogilvie’s noble Scottish family was partly Catholic and partly Presbyterian. His father raised him as a Calvinist, sending him to the continent to be educated. There, John became interested in the popular debates going on between Catholic and Calvinist scholars. Confused by the arguments of Catholic scholars whom he sought out, he turned to Scripture. Two texts particularly struck him: “God wills all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,” and “Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.”


At the age of twelve he was sent to the European continent to be educated. He attended a number of Catholic educational establishments, under the Benedictines at Regensburg in Germany

Slowly, John came to see that the Catholic Church could embrace all kinds of people. Among these, he noted, were many martyrs. He decided to become Catholic and was received into the Church at Louvain, Belgium, in 1596 at the age of 17.


At age seventeen, he was received into the Catholic Church


John continued his studies, first with the Benedictines, then as a student at the Jesuit College at Olmutz. He joined the Jesuits and for the next 10 years underwent their rigorous intellectual and spiritual training. At his ordination to the priesthood in France in 1610, John met two Jesuits who had just returned from Scotland after suffering arrest and imprisonment. They saw little hope for any successful work there in view of the tightening of the penal laws. But a fire had been lit within John. For the next two and a half years he pleaded to be placed there as a missionary.


John Ogilvie claimed to be from a noble family in the North East and to have been raised as a Protestant. He was educated on the continent, converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained as Jesuit priest at Paris in 1610.


He became a Jesuit and was sent to Scotland, where he worked among the few Catholics in the area of Glasgow. Arrested after less than a year, he was hanged at Glasgow Cross in 1615.


Sent by his superiors, he secretly entered Scotland posing as a horse trader or a soldier returning from the wars in Europe. Unable to do significant work among the relatively few Catholics in Scotland, John made his way back to Paris to consult his superiors. Rebuked for having left his assignment in Scotland, he was sent back. He warmed to the task before him and had some success in making converts and in secretly serving Scottish Catholics. But he was soon betrayed, arrested, and brought before the court.

returned to Scotland in November 1613 disguised as a horse trader named John Watson. Thereafter he began to preach in secret, celebrating Mass clandestinely in private homes. This ministry was to last less than a year. In October 1614, Ogilvie was discovered and arrested in Glasgow under the orders of Archbishop Spottiswood, and was imprisoned.


He was initially treated well, but after continually refusing to confess, was tortured by sleep deprivation. He aggravated his position by refusing to pledge allegiance to King James, and it was for this crime that he was tried.


During the trial he accused the king of 'playing the runagate from God' and stated he would acknowledge him no more than an 'old hat'. Found guilty, he was hanged at Glasgow Cross on 10 March 1615, aged thirty-six.


His trial dragged on until he had been without food for 26 hours. He was imprisoned and deprived of sleep. For eight days and nights he was dragged around, prodded with sharp sticks, his hair pulled out. Still, he refused to reveal the names of Catholics or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the king in spiritual affairs. He underwent a second and third trial but held firm.


At his final trial, he assured his judges: “In all that concerns the king, I will be slavishly obedient; if any attack his temporal power, I will shed my last drop of blood for him. But in the things of spiritual jurisdiction which a king unjustly seizes I cannot and must not obey.”


Condemned to death as a traitor, he was faithful to the end, even when on the scaffold he was offered his freedom and a fine living if he would deny his faith. His courage in prison and in his martyrdom was reported throughout Scotland.

Condemned to death as a traitor, he was faithful to the end, even when on the scaffold he was offered his freedom and a fine living if he would deny his faith. His courage in prison and in his martyrdom was reported throughout Scotland. John Ogilvie was canonized in 1976, becoming the first Scottish saint since 1250.


Ogilvie's last words were: "If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have." After he was pushed from the stairs, he threw his concealed rosary out into the crowd.


As a last gesture before his hanging, St. John had tossed his Rosary beads into the crowd where they were caught by a Calvinist nobleman. The man, Baron John ab Eckersdorff, later became a Catholic, tracing his conversion to the incident and the martyr’s beads.


one of his enemies caught it and subsequently became a devout, lifelong Catholic. After his execution Ogilvie's followers were rounded up and put in jail. They suffered heavy fines, but none received the death penalty.


John Ogilvie was canonized in 1976, becoming the first Scottish saint since 1250. His liturgical feast is celebrated on March 10.

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