This is the inspiring story of how an ordinary lay man used his extraordinary practical skills to preserve the Catholic faith in England during a time of intense persecution.
HIS EARLY LIFE
Nicholas Owen was born around 1562 in Oxford and was the son of a Carpenter. His parents were devoutly Catholic and he was brought up in the faith. The faith-filled young man was apprenticed to an Oxford joiner for eight years where he learnt all his skill as a carpenter and stone mason. In 1588 he started working for a Jesuit, Fr Henry Garnet. At the time, during the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion and from 1585 any Catholic priest found in England would be tried for treason, punishable by death. There were many Catholic priests still living secretly in England at the time providing the Sacraments where they could but they were in great danger and needed good places to hide when the authorities came looking for them.
Nicholas began travelling all round England building hiding places in the manor houses of those still practicing the Catholic faith. He would work at night, on his own, carving concealed spaces out of the stone walls or in the ground. He was ingenious in constructing hidden entrances and escape routes and would ensure that no-one but the owner of the house knew their location. He would then work during the day doing small carpentry jobs so that the rest of the household did not suspect anything. Many examples of his work still survive with priest’s holes in Harvington Hall (Worcestershire), Sawston Hall (Cambridgeshire), Huddington Court (Worcestershire) and Coughton Hall (Warwickshire). He travelled from one house to another, using the name, “Little John”, accepting only the necessities of life as payment for his work. His work was very difficult and very skilled. He worked in the dark, in small spaces carving out rock and stone and he had to work quietly because the fear of capture and death were always with him. But he was steadfast in his faith and trusted that God would protect him.
It is not known how many hiding holes he created or how many priest’s lives he saved but his work helped the Catholic Faith to survive through a very difficult time of persecution. Eventually in 1594 he was caught and imprisoned but the authorities didn’t realise who he was and what he had been doing so he was fined and released. This did not deter Nicholas and he went back to work building refuges for priests. But in 1605 after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot the authorities became even more vigilant and Nicholas was arrested along with Fr. Henry Garnet and Fr. Edward Oldcorne.
Nicholas was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was suffering from a hernia and legally he should not have been tortured but they were desperate to get his secrets from him so he was put on the rack and he was very badly tortured for weeks on end. He had the knowledge that would have condemned most of the remaining Catholics in England but the Lord strengthened him and he remained silent throughout. He died in March 1606 without betraying any of his secrets.
It was for his sanctity as well as his martyrdom that St. Nicholas Owen was canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970. Their feast day is on October 25th.