The Catholic Defender: Saint Nicholas Owen
Owen built many priest holes in the buildings of English Catholics from 1588 until his final arrest in 1606, when he was tortured to death by prison authorities in the Tower of London.
Nicholas Owen was born around 1562 in Oxford, England, into a devoutly Catholic family and grew up during the Penal Laws. His father, Walter Owen, was a carpenter and Nicholas was apprenticed as a joiner in February 1577, acquiring the skills that he would use to build hiding places. Two of his older brothers became priests. Nicholas Owen (birthday uncertain, 1150) was a Jesuit brother whose talents as a mason and carpenter provided priests with concealed hiding places in the homes of Catholics and enabled the priests to avoid capture despite the most thorough of searches.
Nicholas, familiarly known as “Little John,” was small in stature but big in the esteem of his fellow Jesuits.
Nicholas Owen the patron saint of illusionists and escapologists, due to his facility at using trompe-l'œil when creating his hideouts.
Born at Oxford, this humble artisan saved the lives of many priests and laypersons in England during the penal times (1559-1829), when a series of statutes punished Catholics for the practice of their faith.
Over a period of about 20 years, Nicholas used his skills to build secret hiding places for priests throughout the country.
His work, which he did completely by himself as both architect and builder, was so good that time and time again priests in hiding were undetected by raiding parties.
Nicholas was a genius at finding and creating places of safety: subterranean passages, small spaces between walls, impenetrable recesses.
At one point he was even able to mastermind the escape of two Jesuits from the Tower of London. Whenever Nicholas set out to design such hiding places, he began by receiving the holy Eucharist, and he would turn to God in prayer throughout the long, dangerous construction process.
After many years at his unusual task, Nicholas entered the Society of Jesus and served as a lay brother, although—for very good reasons—his connection with the Jesuits was kept secret.
Upon his release, he entered the service of Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, around 1588. For the next 18 years, Owen built hiding places for Catholic priests in the homes of Catholic families. He frequently traveled from one house to another under the name of "Little John" and accepted only the necessities of life as payment before he started off for a new project.
He also used the aliases "Little Michael", "Andrewes" and "Draper". During the daytime, he would work as a travelling carpenter to deflect suspicion.
After a number of narrow escapes, he himself was finally caught in 1594. Despite protracted torture, Nicholas refused to disclose the names of other Catholics. After being released following the payment of a ransom, “Little John” went back to his work.
He was arrested again in 1606. This time he was subjected to horrible tortures, suffering an agonizing death. The jailers tried suggesting that he had confessed and committed suicide, but his heroism and sufferings soon were widely known.
Owen was of very short stature, and suffered from a hernia, as well as a crippled leg from a horse falling on him. Nevertheless, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework, and to minimise the likelihood of betrayal, he often worked at night and always alone. Sometimes, he built an easily discovered outer hiding place, which concealed an inner hiding place.
After being committed to the Marshalsea, a prison on the southern bank of the Thames, Owen was then removed to the Tower of London. He was submitted to torture on the Topcliffe rack, dangling from a wall with both wrists held fast in iron gauntlets and his body hanging. As his hernia allowed his intestines to bulge out during this procedure, the rackmaster strapped a circular plate of iron to his stomach.
When he remained stubborn, it is believed that he was transferred to the rack, where the greater power of the windlass forced out his hernia, which was then slashed by the plate, resulting in his death. Owen revealed nothing to his inquisitors, and died in the night between 1 and 2 March 1606. Gerard wrote of him:
Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.