St. Nicholas Owen — Builder of Secret Hiding Places for Persecuted Priests

As the persecution of Catholics in England grew intense, St. Nicholas put his skill to work for the Church, engineering hiding places for priests around the country.

Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Edward Oldcorne; Nicholas Owen”
Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Edward Oldcorne; Nicholas Owen” (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read Jesus’ parable of the talents. The story is a familiar one. A master gives money, in the ancient currency “talents,” to his three servants before departing on a journey. When the master returns, he asks his servants what they have done with the talents he gave them, and they show him either the work they have accomplished in his name or, in the case of the foolish third servant, how they have wasted his gifts. Praising the industry and gratitude of his two faithful servants, the master says: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich” (Matthew 25:29).

Christ’s point is clear. We are all created with a unique purpose, called to use our own gifts and abilities to serve God’s will in our lives. He has already given us more than we could ever deserve when he created us in his image. This is both a gift and responsibility. Jesus’ harsh language in the parable proves the point. Cursed be the one who squanders his share of the divine intellect in idle passivity. We are called to participate in the awe-inspiring creativity of our Creator. Anything less than our full commitment is a waste of this lavish generosity, and reveals our own hardness of heart.

This is a daunting call to action, but our Church history is teeming with the stories of men and women who rose brilliantly to this challenge. The communion of saints is filled with mothers, fathers, doctors, priests, nuns, kings and queens, and men and women from every occupation.

When I first learned about St. Nicholas Owen, one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonized in 1970, I thought that no man could have taken Jesus’ parable of talents to heart as much as he did. Born around 1560 to a devout Catholic family in England, Nicholas trained as a carpenter and mason. As the persecution of Catholics worsened throughout the latter half of the 16th century, Nicholas put his skill to work for the Church, engineering hiding places for priests around the country.

Despite an injury that damaged his leg permanently as a young man, Nicholas placed his mind, hands and body in God’s hands, trusting utterly in his will. Working as a regular carpenter during the day to avoid detection, Nicholas would meet with Catholic homeowners who had requested his services.

As the sun set, he would receive Holy Communion, if possible, and then sit in prayer and contemplation while he asked God to bless his work and protect the men whose lives depended on his constructions. After nightfall, cloaked in darkness to shield him from the Crown’s spies, Nicholas would set about his daring task, breaking through dirt and stone, ignoring the pain in his leg as he built priest holes, secret chapels, hidden tunnels and staircases, all designed to allow the faith to live on under the noses of the government determined to squash it.

Once, in 1594, he was captured alongside a priest and subjected to torture in the Tower of London. But after a Catholic family paid a bribe he was released, his captors thinking he was of little consequence. They did not realize they had captured the architectural mastermind behind the network of hiding places by which the Catholic faith was surviving persecution in England.

Undeterred by his brush with the Tower’s torture chambers, Nicholas returned to the prison, this time to assist with the daring escape of the priest who had been captured with him, Jesuit Father John Gerard. The grateful Jesuit would later write of Nicholas and his service to the Church: “Through his skill and ingenuity in devising places of concealment, he saved the lives of hundreds of people.”

For years, Nicholas remained one step ahead of the Crown’s agents. He moved up and down the countryside, lending his ingenious designs and capable hands to preserving Catholicism in England. Finally, in November 1605, he was caught. Or, more accurately, he gave himself up, turning himself in as a diversion to allow several other priests with whom he was hiding to escape.

The murderous glee of Nicholas’ captors was unbridled as they realized the import of their prisoner. Here at last was the daring architect who had thwarted them for decades. For years they had searched estates of known Catholics in vain, unable to discover his masterful hiding places and the priests hiding therein. Eleven years earlier they had released him, not knowing that he was one of the keys to unraveling the Catholic underground in England. Now, they would make no such error.

Unfortunately for them, their success hinged upon Nicholas betraying the hundreds of priests and lay Catholics whose lives depended on him. Determined to break him, his persecutors subjected him to severe torture, brutal by even that harsh age’s standards. Their efforts failed. Nicholas Owen endured their inhumanity in silence, refusing to utter a word. His captors were driven nearly mad with frustration, and in their anger they increased his torment until he was mortally wounded and died in agony on March 2, 1606.

Afraid of punishment for the severity of their interrogations, his executioners fabricated a tale of his death, claiming he had committed suicide in fear. Alas for them the truth triumphed, and the story of Nicholas’ heroism spread throughout the land.

A painful and bloody death in the Tower of London’s notorious torture chamber may seem a poor return for a lifetime of faith and courage. But as Alban Butler noted in his Lives of the Saints, “Perhaps no single person contributed more [than St. Nicholas Owen] to the preservation of the Catholic religion in England in penal times.”

Nicholas Owen entrusted himself to God not because he expected safety and prosperity — he did so because he understood that God had called him forth from eternity to use every skill he possessed to carry out the special mission that awaited him. As his eyes closed for the final time before his torturers, Nicholas Owen stood before the God whom he had served so well, and we can be sure he was told: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

St. Nicholas Owen, pray for us!