The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 17, 2000 Issue
Saint of the Day

There's hiding and being discovered

St. Nicholas Owen may have hidden priests, but he never hid his faith


By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Throughout this Jubilee Year, we are called to reconciliation, which is also a theme for Lent and Renew 2000. One particular area of reconciliation Pope John Paul has pointed to is Christian unity.

This week's saint, in particular, calls our attention to the divisions, angers and misunderstandings that have divided Christians over the years.

St. Nicholas Owen was born at Oxford, England, and through the practice of his craft -- carpentry -- played a key role in saving the lives of numerous priests during the persecution of Catholics under King James I.

For two decades, Nicholas -- who also went by the names Little John, Little Michael, Andrewes and Draper -- assisted Jesuit priests by building hiding places for them in the mansions of Catholics throughout England.

These hiding places were behind walls, in underground chambers and inaccessible passageways. He not only designed these hiding places, he built them -- after receiving Communion and while engaging in constant prayer -- even though it often meant moving huge stones all by himself. He also kept their locations secret.

He himself had become a Jesuit lay brother in 1580. He was arrested in 1594, along with Fr. John Gerard, but neither one would reveal the names of any of their Catholic colleagues, despite repeated, brutal torture.

Eventually, Nicholas was released when a wealthy Catholic paid the ransom so that Nicholas could resume his work of providing hiding places for the clergy.

His brush with the authorities didn't deter Nicholas, who is believed to have engineered Fr. Gerard's escape from the Tower of London in 1597.

He avoided further arrest until 1606, when he, St. Fr. Henry Garnet (whom he had served for 18 years), Blessed Fr. Edward Oldcorne and Blessed Br. Ralph Ashley were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Actually, Nicholas' capture came only when he allowed himself to be caught instead of the priest he had hidden.

Nicholas died on March 2, 1606, from the vicious torture to which he was subjected. Blessed Oldcorne and Ashley were executed a month later, and St. Henry was martyred the next year.

Nicholas was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. We celebrate his feast on March 22.

The life of St. Nicholas Owen reminds us of how much work remains to be done in reconciling the various Christian churches more than 400 years after the divisions began.

(Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints, Dictionary of Saints and 365 Saints.)



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