By Fr. Kevin Magner
When I was in the seminary in Rome I had a good friend who was a seminarian at the Venerable English College. One evening I joined him and the rest of the English seminarians for vespers at their seminary chapel, which was where I learned about the English Martyrs. Painted on the walls of the chapel were portraits of priests who had once studied at the Venerable English College during the 16th century English Reformation, when Catholicism was outlawed in England.
These priests, including Ss. Ralph Sherwin, Luke Kirby and Edmund Campion, studied for the Catholic priesthood and were ordained in Rome before returning home to England, fully aware that they could be arrested and put to death as soon as they arrived. This was the risk that the priests faced.
Of course, it was all Catholics who were at risk during those times. Many refused to renounce the Faith and helped to shelter priests so that they could continue to administer the sacraments to the faithful. One of these was St. Nicholas Owen, whose feast day we celebrate today.
In this month’s issue of the Knights of Columbus’ Columbia magazine was a brief article on St. Nicholas Owen. He was a carpenter by trade, having learned his craft from his father. As a devout Catholic, Owen helped the Faith to survive by building “priest holes” in Catholic homes throughout England. A priest hole was a small hidden space where a priest could hide if anti-Catholic “priest hunters” raided the home. (If you’ve seen the James Bond movie, Skyfall, you may remember the escape scene through the priest hole.)
Nicholas Owen was incredibly adept at building these hiding places, disguising the entrances in stairways, attics and floorboards. Sometimes he would even cleverly build a false priest hole that was easy to find so that the real hiding place would remain undiscovered. Owen built all these places on his own and always at night so that their locations would remain secret, known only to him and the owner of the house.
After almost 20 years of building these hiding places, Owen was finally caught and arrested in 1606. Despite being tortured he never revealed the name of any priest or any of the hiding places. He died during torture on March 2, 1606. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
It is hard for us to fully appreciate the fidelity of Catholics like Nicholas Owen who literally lived under the threat of death every day simply for being Catholic. Let us pray that we will never have to live through a time of persecution like he did and that those Catholics throughout the world who are currently suffering persecution will remain resolute in the Faith like the faithful martyrs who have gone before us.
St. Nicholas Owen, pray for us!