St. Nicholas Owen (c.1561-1606)
Feast day: March 22
A patron saint for escape artists may strike you as unexpected.
But that is one of the pleasures of studying the saints — time and again we’re
reminded that Catholics from every profession, in every condition of life, want
their own heavenly guardian. And magicians (some prefer the name
“illusionists”) have chosen St. Nicholas Owen as their patron. That is how the
patron saint system has always worked. We don’t have to wait for the pope to
formally appoint a saint to be patron of one thing or another. In fact, popes
rarely do so. It is ordinary Catholics —
the folks in the pews — who see
something in the life of a particular saint that reminds them of their own
situation, and so that saint becomes their patron.
We know that Nicholas Owen was born in Oxford, but we don’t know
in what year. The best guess is somewhere between 1561 and 1564. Nicholas’
parents were faithful Catholics at a time when the faith was outlawed in
England. Of their four sons two, Walter Jr. and John, became priests; Nicholas
became a Jesuit lay brother. Before he entered religious life, Nicholas learned
his father’s craft — he became a skilled carpenter.
Under the penal laws enacted by Elizabeth I, and re-implemented
by her successor, James I, Catholics were forbidden to hear Mass, to receive
the sacraments, to teach their children the Catholic faith or to welcome
priests into their homes. Nonetheless, many crypto-Catholic families violated
all of these laws to keep their faith alive. The main problem was how to hide
priests from the government’s professional priest hunters. That’s where
Nicholas Owen stepped in.
Physically, he was anything but imposing. He stood less than 5
feet tall. He limped from a broken leg that had been badly set. And he suffered
from an incurable hernia in his abdomen, probably caused by heavy lifting while
doing carpentry work.
We know that by 1588, Nicholas was building what were known as
“priest holes” in Catholic homes across England. Always working at night and
alone so no one else could be implicated, Nicholas built hiding places under
stairs, behind wood-paneled walls, beside indoor toilets, even in what appeared
to be solid masonry where priests, their sacred books, their vestments and all
the liturgical vessels necessary for Mass could be concealed if priest hunters
came to the door. Hiding places constructed by St. Nicholas can be seen today
at Baddesley Clinton — where Nicholas built several hiding places, Broadoaks
Manor, Boscobel House, Harvington Hall, and Oxburgh Hall, to name a few. It is
believed that Nicholas built dozens of such holes, but many have not been
discovered — a tribute to his ingenuity.
One of his priest holes, at Hindlip Hall, proved to be his
undoing. In 1606, after eight days inside the hole, Nicholas came out and,
taking care to be far removed from the location of the hiding place, he
surrendered to the priest hunters. Inside the hole were two priests.
Robert Cecil, James I’s secretary of state, exulted at the news
of Nicholas’ capture. “It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his
arrest, knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places, and the
innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all
For six days, the Tower of London’s torturers stretched Nicholas
on the rack, but he would not reveal the names of the families in whose houses
he had built priest holes. On the sixth day, the torturers were especially
brutal. They racked Nicholas so severely that his hernia ruptured and he died.
Jesuit Father John Gerard, whose escape from the Tower had been
masterminded by St. Nicholas, 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.”
Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving
Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.