Priest holes

Shelters in homes – Dan Snow talks about secret places were the faithful helped Catholic priests hide from Henry VIII’s murderous men.

St. Nicholas Owen, S.J. (English: ?-1606) was a Coadjutor Brother who was a mason and carpenter by trade, and who wonderfully used these talents creatively in the service of the persecuted Church in England. His ingenuity saved hundreds of priests from capture by the persistent bounty hunters operating during the Elizabethan inquisition. Nicholas’ cleverness provided priests with safe refuge from these priest-hunters. Of his three brothers, two became priests and one became a printer of underground Catholic books and printed material for the Jesuits. Nicholas’ early Jesuit companion was Edmund Campion and Nicholas was arrested when he spoke openly of Campion’s innocence. Nicholas later was released; he then contacted Henry Garnet and became his associate. In time the priest hunters got to know Nicholas as “Garnet’s man”, while the priests knew him as “Little John”. Nicholas constructed hiding places in the various mansions used as priest-centers throughout England. During the day he worked on either the interior or the exterior of the building, but always in public view so that the servants would think that he was a hired carpenter. During the evening and night, however, he worked on his concealed rooms, digging deep into the earth or chipping through thick stone walls. He always worked alone to insure secrecy. Only he and the owner of the house knew where the secret rooms were located. Nicholas had no formal novitiate, but he received his religious training in his close collaboration with his superior. In 1594, he was helping John Gerard in a London residence when both were arrested and taken to the Counter prison. Nicholas was still unknown as the mastermind behind the hiding places and was considered but a small fish in the vast ocean of Catholic disobedience. He was released and immediately returned to his inventive labors. Eventually Nicholas was again captured and brought to the Tower for intense torture so that the priest hunters could learn the location of his many hiding places. His silence infuriated his tormentors who increased his unspeakable suffering until it caused his death. The Elizabethan inquisitors learned nothing from him. John Gerard said of Nicholas that none other among the Jesuits had rendered such valuable service to the Catholic cause in England, “since, through his skill and ingenuity in devising places of concealment, he had saved the lives of hundreds of people.” (Ban, Bas, Cor, JLx, Tyl)


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