John Fagan: a docker's miracle

POST BY GClapson

Fagn and Mary Fagan in Rome 1976
John and Mary Fagan at the canonisation of St John Ogilvie SJ, Rome 1976

Michael McLaughlin reflects on the miracle that contributed to St John Ogilvie SJ being declared a saint in 1976.

The first part of the 17th century was a dangerous time to be a Catholic priest in Scotland as, after the Scottish Reformation of 1560, it had become illegal to preach or convert others to Catholicism.  Ogilvie arrived in Glasgow disguised as a horse trader with the names of five lapsed Catholics whom he wished to contact.  But he found himself immersed in a wider circle when he got there.  He celebrated clandestine Masses and was eventually betrayed to the authorities after only a year of ministry to Catholics.

He suffered terrible tortures including being kept awake for nine days and nights and having needles pushed under his fingernails.  He was paraded through the streets of Glasgow before being hanged for treason.  As he mounted the scaffold, an old hag spat on him and shouted, “A curse be on your popish face, Ogilvie!” to which he responded, “And a blessing be upon your bonny face, Madam!”

We have no knowledge of where St John is buried but believe his remains lie in a pauper’s grave somewhere near the place of execution.  He threw his rosary into the crowd.


The parish of Blessed John Ogilvie in Easterhouse, Glasgow, was home to John Fagan, a worker at the Glasgow docks.  In 1967, Fagan developed a large tumour in his stomach and the entire parish prayed to Blessed John for a miracle.  The parish priest, Father Thomas Reilly, pinned a medal of Blessed John to Fagan’s pyjamas.  Their prayers were indeed answered.  His wife kept vigil at his bedside and he had slipped into a coma.  The family doctor visited late at night and told Mary she had to prepare herself, as he expected her husband to die during the night and that he would return in the morning to sign the death certificate.

In the early hours of the morning John spoke to Mary and told her he was hungry and asked for something to eat.  He had not eaten for months.  She made him an egg and toast which he ate.  In the morning, the doctor returned and was so amazed to see John sitting up in bed talking that he collapsed into a chair.  The news of these strange events spread all over Glasgow and beyond.  Medical examinations did indeed prove that there was no longer any sign of the tumour.

The Vatican was informed and the process of investigation began.  Father Reilly was named as the Vice Postulator of the cause and all necessary papers were sent to Rome.  Eventually, the miracle was declared and nine years later, on 17 October 1976 Pope Paul V1 canonised John Ogilvie.


John Fagan had been in the army in Rome in 1944 when the city was liberated from the Nazis.  He found himself on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, looking at the magnificence of the Vatican.  Little did he realise that three decades later he would return there to play a major role in the making of a saint. 

John Ogilvie died for witnessing to his beliefs in a world hostile to the values of Christ.  His martyrdom made a deep impression on many who witnessed his execution.  The blood of the martyrs is so often the seed of the blossoming Church.  

Ogilvie shrine, Glasgow

The words of another martyr who also died in March, Oscar Romero, sums this up:

“I have often been threatened with death. If they kill me I shall
Arise in the Salvadoran people. A bishop will die, but the Church
Which is the people of God will never perish”

When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in 1982, he made reference to the bitter divisions which had been evident in Scotland’s history.  He cited the faith of Ogilvie in holding strong to the tenets of Catholicism and the need for all Christians to walk hand in hand as brothers and sisters.  Ogilvie’s legacy is indeed true to our times.

The Jesuit church in Glasgow, St Aloysius, hosts the National Shrine to Ogilvie (photo left) and the Catholic Cathedral, St Andrew’s, has a wonderful painting of his martyrdom by the celebrated Glasgow painter, Peter Howson, as commissioned by Glasgow’s then archbishop, Mario Conti.

Main photo: John and Mary Fagan attend the canonisation of St John Ogilvie SJ in Rome, October 1976. Credit: Eleanor McDowell