St Nicholas Owen 1562-1606
St Nicholas Owen 1562-1606

Nicholas Owen SJ

St Nicholas Owen was born in 1562 in Oxford into a devout recusant family, and trained as a carpenter and joiner.  As a Jesuit lay brother he became the servant of Henry Garnet SJ, the Superior of the English mission, in 1588 -  a time when the penalty for Catholic priests discovered in England was torture and death.  His carpentry skills were put to use in building priest holes or hiding places in the houses of Catholics all over the country.  Known as “Little John”, (few of his clients knew his real name) Owen was of very short stature and suffered ill health, including a hernia.  Nevertheless he spent eighteen years doing strenuous physical labour in cramped spaces, always alone and at night to avoid discovery.   In 1597 he helped to plan the famous escape from the Tower of London of his Jesuit colleague John Gerard.  He was finally arrested in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.  The authorities were delighted to have caught him, and hoped to extract valuable information under torture.  They were disappointed.  Despite over a month of torture he revealed nothing and died on the rack.  Fr Garnet said of him:

"I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular."

He was canonized in 1970 and his feast day is 22nd March.

Image: This sculpture of St Nicholas Owen SJ is in Harvington Catholic Church, next to the Hall in which he had built seven priest hiding holes - more than in any other place.