The Little Saint Nicholas Owen

St. Nicholas Owen was, like Jesus himself, only a carpenter, but he displayed a heroism to shame us all.

Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Nicholas Owen”
Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Nicholas Owen” (photo: Public Domain)

St. Thérèse of Lisieux is known for her little way, but there is another little saint who is one of my favorites.

St. Nicholas Owen was known as “Little John.” He was part of the courageous resistance during the Protestant revolution in England. Owen was a Jesuit lay brother. 

A master carpenter from Oxford, he was only a little bit taller than a dwarf. He limped from a badly injured leg and suffered a painful hernia. A loyal, Samwise Gamgee kind of hobbitish fellow, Nicholas Owen is the man who designed and built countless “priest holes” in recusant country houses across England. The “recusants” were those who refused to conform to the Queen’s new Protestant religion.

To be a Catholic priest in England was a crime punishable by being hung drawn and quartered. The poursuivants were the spies and agents of the crown who searched tirelessly for the priests.

To stay one step ahead of them, Owen had to devise increasingly cunning hiding places. He would build false walls and then put another false wall in front of it so when they tapped and found it hollow and tore the wall down they would find an empty hiding place–never supposing that the real hiding place was in another wall behind that one. 

He used sewage drains, false chimney flues, fake attics and underfloor hiding places. Often, he would even build in a hole to be used as a toilet and construct a side chamber so the priest would slide down the toilet, then into the hiding place. Sometimes minute holes would be drilled in the walls through which a straw could be placed so the priest (who might have to hide there for days or even weeks) could be fed secretly. 

Little John was captured thrice. The first time he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The second time in the Tower he was tortured. The final time he was captured in the crackdown after the Gunpowder Plot. Despite cruel torture he never revealed his hiding places, and he finally died under torture in the Tower of London.

What I like about Nicholas Owen is his stout and determined faith. He never gave in, showing the kind of courage in the face of adversity of all the great saints. Because of his skill at escape and hiding places he is the patron saint of illusionists and escapologists.

I also like his littleness. Somehow, he shows us the stalwart courage of all God’s ‘little’ saints. He was not only little physically, but he was comparatively unlearned and unpolished. He was, like Jesus himself, only a carpenter, but he displayed heroism and a “bigness” to shame us all. He’s leaping up in my gallery of saints, and I pray for a measure of both his littleness and his greatness.