Biography of St. Nicholas Owen

Statue of St. Nicholas OwenDuring the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion. From 1585 it was considered treason, punishable by a traitor’s death, to be found in England if you had been ordained a priest abroad. This meant that priests needed hiding places.

Nicholas Owen, originally from Oxford, was a stone mason and carpenter by trade. One of the first English Jesuit lay brothers, he was arrested for protesting the innocence of Edmund Campion. Upon his release he contacted Fr. Garnet and from 1588-1605 travelled all over England constructing hiding holes in the mansion safe houses of that period. During the evening and night he worked on his own, carving concealed rooms out of the stone walls or ground. The location of the secret room was known only to himself and the owner of the house. During the daytime he would work as a travelling carpenter to fool the servants. Examples of his work survive at Sawston Hall (Cambs), Huddington Court (Worcestershire) and Coughton Hall (Warwickshire).

In 1594 Owen was helping John Gerard in London when they were both arrested. As his work on priest holes was unknown, he was considered a minor player and bribery led to his release. It is believed he helped mastermind Fr. Gerard’s escape from the Tower in 1597. Unfortunately the accession of James I to the throne brought no relief to English Catholics. Owen continued his work until the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 forced several priests and Owen into hiding at Hindlip House, Worcestershire. After being in hiding for several days Nicholas Owen, Fr. Henry Garnet, Ralph Ashley (Chambers) and Fr. Edward Oldcorne were caught. Nicholas Owen was taken to the Tower of London and tortured. He died in March 1606 without betraying any secrets.

Fr. Henry Garnet wrote of him as a carpenter of singular faithfulness and skill, creating hiding places without charge, whilst Fr. John Gerard said of Nicholas that ‘through his skill and ingenuity in devising places of concealment, he saved the lives of hundreds of people’. The modern edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints states, “Perhaps no single person contributed more to the preservation of the Catholic religion in England during penal times.” It was for his sanctity as well as his martyrdom that St. Nicholas Owen was canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on October 25th 1970. His feast day is March 22.

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