‘Master Illusionist’

The martyr had an illustrious, though secret, career before meeting his end: building hiding places for priests during England’s years of anti-Catholic persecution.

I made my way through the crowds on the bank of the River Thames and stood in line to buy my ticket for the Tower of London tour.

Yes, the Tower — that infamous prison that held martyrs such as St. Thomas More.

William the Conqueror, who commissioned the Tower in 1078, intended it to protect the city against invaders.

Most people in line with me at the ticket booth were probably hoping to catch a glimpse of the Crown Jewels. I, on the other hand, came to pay homage to the martyrs’ crowns earned here at all too great a price.

The usual visitor is unaware of the centuries of repression British Catholics suffered during the “Penal Times.” Between 1559 and 1829, the British government imposed a series of laws forbidding Catholics from practicing their faith. Henry VIII’s apostasy, treachery and moral inconsistency helped create hundreds of martyrs for the Church. Subsequent rulers of Britain offered more of the same.

St. Nicholas Owen was one of many who suffered and died in the Tower. He was known as “Little John.” He was a tiny slip of a Jesuit, but, as the old hagiographies commonly attested, he was big of heart. Owen was slightly taller than a dwarf and suffered from a hernia and a badly set leg, fractured when a horse fell on him. On March 2, 1606, Nicholas Owen was tortured to death in the Tower of London. He had, in fact, already been here before — when he helped two Jesuit priests escape.

In 1588, Father Henry Garnet, superior of the English Jesuits, directed St. Nicholas to use his cabinetry and masonry skills to save people’s lives by creating “priest holes,” secret places designed to hide priests from the authorities. More than 100 examples of his work have been found throughout England, but many more will probably never be known.

At night, St. Nicholas would create small hiding places — trap doors, sliding doors, hidden crawl spaces and subterranean passages — in order to hide priests and other Catholic fugitives from priest hunters. He would use trompe l’oeil: perspective and many of the modern principles of stage illusion design that magicians often take for granted. Whenever St. Nicholas would design and build such hiding places, he would always begin with prayer and receive the Eucharist. Because of his incredible building skills, he was even able to help two Jesuit priests escape from the Tower.

It’s not strange to imagine why Catholic magicians, illusionists and escape artists consider him as important a patron as St. Don Bosco. Who better to be a patron than a man who could use illusion to fool the eye, break into prison, and help people escape?

Nicholas managed to evade anti-Catholic authorities until the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1606, he was arrested again in Worcestershire. He gave himself up without resisting in order to distract attention from two priests hiding nearby.

Despite it being illegal for him to be tortured (under English law the maimed were exempt from torture), he suffered on the rack until his death. He kept his secrets from his executioners and betrayed no one.

Father Gerard, one of the two men he helped escape from the Tower, once wrote: “I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who labored in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.”

One particularly gruesome report stated that they tortured Owen “with such inhuman ferocity” that he became disemboweled.

Unfamiliar Name

The tour led through a maze of dark tunnels, and our guide offered sensationalist and titillating bits of sanitized history. No mention at all of the Penal Times. No mention of the Catholics who defended the Church only to be ruthlessly killed by people who had only a few years prior been Catholics themselves. The tourists in my group seem engrossed by the macabre details of the tortures carried out in the Tower, as portrayed by our tour guide — horrors that even in this jaded century would be considered crimes against humanity.

I felt the walls around me, though I was asked not to touch them. They were, after all, hallowed because of the blood of martyrs who died here.

“Is this where St. Nicholas Owen died?” I asked, hoping my question wasn’t obstreperous, but still hoping to witness to his sacrifice.

My guide smiled and apologized. She was unfamiliar with the name.

Without St. Nicholas Owen’s help, hundreds of British Catholics would have been deprived of the sacraments. In recognition of his sacrifice and his love of God, Nicholas Owen was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 25, 1970, their feast day.

Very few stops on my recent pilgrimage throughout Europe solicited such strong feelings from me. I had been to many sites made holy because of the lives of holy people, but I’d never been to a place of martyrdom. So many people were blessed with martyrs’ crowns in England and Wales because they never abandoned God or the Church. I won’t forget my visit to this place, so full of aching misery and the spiritual joy that ensued from it.

Angelo Stagnaro is based in

Fresh Meadows, New York.