March 2nd : Saint Nicholas Owen, SJ

Saint Nicholas Owen, SJ

Died : March 2, 1606
Beatified : December 15, 1929
Canonized : October 25, 1970

Nicholas Owen was born in Oxford on an unrecorded date in the 16th century. His father was a carpenter and two of his three brothers were priests. His first association with the Jesuits was from 1580 to 1581, when he served as Fr Edmund Campion’s servant. After Fr Campion’s martydom, Owen spoke out on behalf of his former master’s innocence which resulted in his brief arrest in 1582.

He worked with Fr Henry Garnet, superior of the English Jesuits and helped to construct hiding places in the various mansions used as priest centres throughout England. He worked on the interior or the exterior of the building, always in public view so that the servants would think him a hired carpenter. In the evening and night, he worked on his concealed room, digging deep into the earth or chipping through thick stones walls. He worked alone to ensure secrecy, and only he and the house owner knew the secret room‘s location. Some of the places were big enough to accommodate 6-10 people; others concealed inside another hidden room to throw the priest-hunters off the scent. He was arrested briefly and was released as the police did not know he was the mastermind behind the hiding places.

Fr Garnet wrote a letter in 1588 expressing the hope that his carpenter might someday enter the Society. It was not known when Owen became a Jesuit; there was no formal noviceship for him as he received his religious training in his intimate collaboration with Fr Garnet. However his final moments were quite clear. He accompanied Fr Garnet to Hinlip Hall, near Worcester, seeking shelter during the crisis provoked by the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Although the plot was discovered and the conspirators apprehended, the Jesuits were blamed for the plot as the government hated the Jesuits.

Fr Garnet and Bro Owen met Fr Oldcorne and Bro Ralph Ashley and all four went into hiding holes. The sheriff searched the house for several days without success until the two brothers were forced to leave their hiding place because of hunger and thirst. They tried to pretend to be priests but could not fool the priest-hunters who eventually tracked them down in one of the hiding places.

All four Jesuits were taken to London, and Bro Owen was put into Marshalsea Prison before they moved him to the Tower to be tortured. As the king’s men suspected that Bro Owen knew the location of all the hiding places and residences of priests, they tortured him to force him to uncover the Catholic underground, but Bro Owen did not betray those he had spent so much time protecting. He maintained his silence. The torturers intensified their torture by adding more weight to his feet for many days until his abdomen burst open and his intestines spilled out. Bro Owen lingered on for one more painful day before he died. The rack-master tried to cover up his excessive harsh behaviour and treatment by saying that Bro Owen committed suicide.

Bro Owen who was a clever and hard-working Jesuit remained courageous and faithful in his death.