A Jesuit in Disguise: St John Ogilvie SJ

10 March 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Scotland's only Catholic reformation martyr, St John Ogilvie SJ. Among the events to mark the event, the Catholic Truth Society has published a pamphlet about him, sub-titled A Jesuit in Disguise.

Born in Banffshire, Scotland, of noble parentage, John Ogilvie was raised in the Calvinist tradition and was sent abroad to be educated. During a period of spiritual contemplation, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained a Jesuit priest. Despite the risk of preaching in a reformed Protestant Scotland, he returned, disguised as a horse trader.

Dr Eleanor McDowell who wrote the CTS pamphlet describes this period as “a time of great religious upheaval”, but says Ogilvie was governed by his faith and conscience. “During this period, life for many Scots was overshadowed by intense suspicion and conflict,” she writes in the Preface. “As a measure of safety and in order to preach the prohibited Mass in secret, Fr Ogilvie adopted the disguise of a horse dealer. But sadly, the course of his Scottish ministry lasted less than a year.”


A Jesuit in Disguise includes extracts from Ogilvie’s own writings, as well as descriptive accounts of his ministry in Scotland, his betrayal, arrest and imprisonment. Dr McDowell also provides a detailed account of the events immediately prior to 10 March 1615 when he was hanged at Glasgow Cross. “That evening his prayers were disturbed by the construction of the scaffold, in preparation for execution. When he faced the refined dignitaries he wore an ill-fitting, short coat that was torn under the arm. His gaoler, the one inclined to use force without pity, appropriated his ‘good’ coat. What need would the Jesuit have for it?” The National Shrine to St John Ogilvie is located in St Aloysius Church in Glasgow.

Beyond John Ogilvie’s martyrdom, Dr McDowell also details the devotion shown to him by Catholics in Scotland and the cause for his beatification and canonisation. In particular, she recounts the inexplicable cure experienced by Glasgow docker John Fagan, attributed as a miracle and Fagan’s attendance with his wife at the canonisation ceremony in Rome in 1976.

But in addition to the facts surrounding the life, death and canonisation of St John Ogilvie SJ, Dr McDowell also draws out modern messages that can be learned from his witness. “He died to defend the right of religious liberty during the highly charged period of the Scottish Reformation,” she writes. “It is easy to look back on the Reformation and other times of religious conflict and point to discord and division. But the painful reality is that even today, with the benefit of hindsight, we must continue to strive towards a more inclusive and just society which respects religious freedom and a diverse Christian vision.”

Dr Eleanor McDowell has an academic background in Environmental Justice and an interest in theology. 

St John Ogilvie – A Jesuit in Disguise (1579 – 1615) is published by CTS books as part of the Saints of the Isles series, price £2.50.