We can learn a lot from St Nicholas Owen, the priest-hole maker

Priest demonstrates the use of the priest hole during the Tudor era (CNS)

While on holiday last week I read “St Nicholas Owen: Priest-hole Maker” by Tony Reynolds (published by Gracewing, £9.99.) I have always been drawn to what I have read about this man of small stature, not a priest but who saved the lives of many priests in the Elizabethan period with his highly ingenious priest-holes. This book fills in the gaps of my knowledge – though there is much that we don’t know about his early life.

He was born in Oxford probably in 1562, the son of a carpenter. He himself chose to become an apprentice in joinery – a more skilled trade and one that was to exploit his considerable gifts to good effect in the Catholic cause. Owen was one of four sons: two older brothers became priests – a highly dangerous choice of vocation in Tudor England – and the youngest, the only one to marry, became a printer, and then chose to engage in the secret printing of Catholic literature. So all four sons in this humble Oxford carpenter’s family took their Catholic faith with a resolute seriousness that could, in those days, lead to imprisonment and death. No details are given of Owen’s parents but I should have loved to have known more of what early influences kindled such a strong faith. We know a lot about the domestic life of St Thomas More for obvious reasons, but nothing about the childhood influences of a man equally courageous in remaining steadfast to his faith to the bitter end.

Owen died under torture in 1606. It is known that he suffered for some years from a hernia. The kind of torments devised by the torturers of the period often caused a rupture in the stomach wall of victims, which would increase the agony. This happened in Owen’s case and led to a prolonged and agonizing death. But throughout his ordeal he gave nothing away to his interrogators. He had spent 18 or 19 years as the faithful servant of the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, knowing that to “relieve, comfort, aid or maintain” a Catholic priest would make him liable to death as a traitor. Contemporary accounts suggest he was personable, discreet and highly skilled in the peculiar demands of his illegal work. As with St Margaret Clitherow, another Elizabethan martyr, Owen shows that great sanctity has nothing to do with social status or superior educational attainments.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes martyrdom as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.” St Nicholas Owen was a martyr. Some people are suggesting that James Foley, the American journalist recently beheaded by IS/ISIS this August is another. It is too early to comment on this but from what I have read of his life he was a highly principled and courageous man, willing to run the risk of imprisonment and death for what he believed. A Catholic, he wrote an article in 2011, when he was briefly imprisoned in Tripoli, Libya, for the alumni magazine of his old university, Marquette, in which he related that his mother had a strong faith and that he “began to pray the Rosary. It was what my mother and my grandmother would have done.” He added that “prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released.”

His release did not stop him from returning to the battlefield. Captured again in 2012 in another Middle Eastern conflict, he was not released this time and thanks to the internet we all know his brutal fate. His parents have been exemplary in their faith during this appalling experience. One hopes that James Foley’s own earlier test of faith during his former imprisonment will have deepened during his last months of incarceration. More details are likely to emerge in time. Meanwhile, may he now rest in peace.