St. Nicholas Owen & His Priest Holes

The Church has endured many periods of great persecution. One of these instances took place in England in the 1500s. When the Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared the English crown to be “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England” in place of the Pope, Catholics were subjected to much persecution and torture.

Priests in particular were targeted by priest hunters. They acted on behalf of the government, searching for these holy servants of God and arresting them. They acted as spies and, if a priest was spotted, he was given forty days to leave the country or be punished for high treason unless he renounced Catholicism.

However, there were still Catholics in England. Many brave priests chose to stay and feed Christ’s sheep. They would take refuge in the homes of the faithful, hidden in tunnels or “priest holes” built by men like St. Nicholas Owen.

Nicholas Owen was one of the most famous of these architects. He knew that the sheep needed priests to feed them, but their shepherds needed protection.

Who Was This Architect?

St. Nicholas Owen was born in Oxford around the year 1562 into a devout Catholic family. His father was a carpenter and had his son apprenticed in the same craft; this gave Nicholas the skills he would later need to help priests.

He was a follower of St. Edmund Campion, a great priest who conducted Catholic ministry in underground, hidden places. Campion was discovered by priest hunters and martyred for his courage; Nicholas Owen was also arrested on charges of being his follower, but he was released.

He no doubt would have willingly died with St. Edmund, but his time had not yet come. God had a special mission for him, and it would earn him the holy crown of martyrdom.

Tiny Cathedrals

A Priest Hole. Image Source

St. Nicholas spent the next eighteen years using the skills he had learned as a carpenter to build hiding places for priests. Many Catholic families who refused to accept Anglicanism offered their homes as sanctuaries to save the lives of these men consecrated to God.

Nicholas traveled anonymously from house to house. He used many aliases to avoid discovery. He accepted nothing in payment for his service except the basic necessities of life–a place to sleep and food. No sooner had he finished building one priest hole than he was off to begin his next project.

To prevent the suspicion of authorities, most priest holes needed to be built into small nooks. This meant that the priest hole might be in a roof space or nook behind the fireplace–no comfortable haven if the priest needed to stay hidden for periods. In larger houses, they might be hidden in an attic space where the priest could celebrate Mass.

In The Cathedral

Some of these shelters were so small that the priests inside would endure suffocation and claustrophobia. If authorities persisted in their visits, the priests might need to stay in their holes for days.

If a priest was fortunate enough to find shelter in the home of a wealthier Catholic family, he might have a hiding place with more breathing room. However, at a time when being a priest could lead to torture and execution, they could not be too picky if a smaller house offered the nook behind their fireplace.

We must admire the courage of these men. A priest hidden in a small hole “might be half-starved, cramped, sore with prolonged confinement, and almost afraid to breathe lest the least sound should throw suspicion upon the particular spot where he was concealed.” (Allan Fea, Secret Chambers and Hiding Places).

Death Of God’s Architect

Nicholas Owen was a travelling architect, savior of priests, and Jesuit lay brother. He protected God’s shepherds on earth at the risk of his life, but could not hide himself forever. There were close calls; once, he was arrested and tortured, but released when a wealthy Catholic family paid for his freedom.

In 1606 he was arrested again, having turned himself in to divert attention from two other priest companions who were hiding nearby. His enemies rejoiced at his capture, “knowing the great skill of Owen…and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.” (Robert Cecil, Secretary of State from 1596 to 1612.)

After spending some time at a prison in Marshalsea, Nicholas Owen was taken to the Tower of London. He was hung from a wall by the wrists with nothing to rest his feet upon. Some say he was then transferred to the rack, where the strain forced out his hernia, causing his death. He revealed nothing to his torturers about the locations of his priest holes. 

The Canonization Of Nicholas Owen

Of St. Nicholas Owen it has been said:

I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.

Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, Fr. John Gerard, S.J.

He was canonized along with the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970 by Pope Pius VI. The joint feast day of these martyrs is May 4, but St. Nicholas Owen is venerated individually on March 22.

His story reminds us of the sacred choice that priests make when they choose Holy Orders. Even during times when the priesthood could lead to death, a brave shepherd will die before he abandons his sheep. He will live a life devoted to representing Christ on earth–even if it means hiding in a hole where oxygen is scarce. 

Priests are holy. Though many have strayed from the righteous path, there are many alive who would still die for their flock. If you are discerning the priesthood, keep in mind that it is not an easy life, but a fulfilling one nonetheless.

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