Perhaps no single person did more for the preservation of the Catholic Faith when its practice was forbidden in England than Nicholas Owen.
A “diminutive man” according to one report, and called “Little John” on that account, Nicholas Owen was possibly a builder by trade. He worked for eighteen years with the clandestine Jesuit missionaries Fathers Henry Garnet and John Gerard and built expertly concealed hiding places for priests and Catholic fugitives.
In an age of license, Nicholas led a singularly innocent life, untainted by the allurements of the world. His confessor affirms that he preserved his baptismal innocence unto death.
Every time Nicholas was about to design a hiding place, he began the work by receiving the Holy Eucharist, accompanied the project by continuous prayer and offered the completion of the work to God alone. No wonder his hiding places were nearly impossible to discover.
After working in this fashion for some years, he was received into the Society of Jesus by Father Garnet as one of England’s first lay brothers. For reasons of concealment, his association with the Jesuits was kept a secret.
He was arrested with Father John Gerard on St. George’s day in 1584. Despite terrible torture, he never revealed the least information about the whereabouts of other Catholics. He was released on a ransom paid by a Catholic gentleman, as his services in contriving hiding places were indispensable.
The unique and successful escape of Father Gerard from the Tower of London was most certainly planned by Owen, although the escape itself was carried out by two others.
Finally, on January 27, 1606, after a faithful service of twenty years, Nicholas Owen fell once more into the hands of his enemies. Closely pursued by government officials, he and three other Jesuits successfully avoided detection for eight days, hidden in a couple of priest holes at Hindlip Hall in Worcester- shire. Concealed in the two small cramped spaces in which they could neither stand upright nor stretch their legs, they received nourishment through small drinking straws hidden in the building’s own structure. Attempting to protect the two priests by drawing attention to himself, Owen left his hiding place first. His fellow lay brother was arrested with him as soon as he emerged from hiding; Fathers Garnet and Oldcorne were seized soon after.
His enemies exulted when they realized they finally had their hands on the great builder of hiding places. Father Gerard wrote of him: "I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who labored in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.”
Brother Nicholas was hung upon a wall; during “interrogation” periods, iron gauntlets were fastened about his wrists from which he hung for hours on end, day after day. When this torture proved insufficient to make him talk, weights were added to his feet. Finally, the pressure caused his entrails to burst forth, causing his death. He revealed nothing.
First Photo by: Quodvultdeus