Priest holes and history lessons: embracing our ancient faith
April 18, 2019
Nicholas Owen was canonized 364 years after his death. Such is often the case with the Catholic Church, charged with curating a 3,000-year treasure trove of saints and stories, rovers and relics.
Owen’s tale is unlike any other. Born in Oxford, England, in the mid-16th century, his devout family prepared him well for his remarkable life’s work. His father was a carpenter who taught him the trade. Two older brothers became priests, bringing the sacraments to a hungry community.
There was much to be done in Elizabethan England, a dark and frightening time when Catholics were persecuted and priests were incarcerated or hanged. A "papist" caught converting an Anglican could be charged with high treason.
Owen was determined to do his part to defend his beloved faith despite considerable physical limitations: He was slightly taller than a dwarf, suffered from a hernia and had a crippled leg. Still, he embarked on the most dangerous of missions, building priest holes into Catholic homes across the country.
For 18 years, he constructed these hiding places to conceal priests from "pursuivants," as they were called – priest hunters who collected tips and searched exhaustively for men in Roman collars. Owen built priest holes in walls, under floors and behind wainscoting. He hid them in fireplaces, attics and staircases. Some took the form of an apartment or chapel in a secluded part of the house or in the roof space, where Mass could be celebrated, vestments could be stored and a priest could retreat in case of emergency.
The work demanded everything of Owen – the strength of his mind, his muscles and his convictions. He broke through massive structures and thick stones. He climbed through underground passages and discovered impenetrable recesses, enmeshing the priest holes in labyrinths.
He worked by night to reduce the chances of being caught, always alone. He used the alias "Little John" and accepted only staples of food or clothing as payment. He kept each place a secret, never disclosing to one the location of another.
Eventually, in 1606, Owen was captured and tortured to death.
Father John Gerard, a Jesuit priest whose escape from the Tower of London was masterminded by Owen, wrote fondly of the martyr: "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."
No one knows just how many priest holes Owen made. Some may still be undiscovered.
Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1970. Today his name pops up randomly online, trending on places like Reddit’s "Today I Learned" tab.
We can honor him simply by attending Mass, especially by taking advantage of daily Mass. To learn Owen’s story is to appreciate Catholicism anew, to crack open its rich history and astounding breadth.
My friend Eileen made a concerted effort to do this by enrolling in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute here in St. Paul, Minn. For two years, she and some 200 classmates met every Monday night to unpack the Catechism, absorb guest lectures and engage in small-group discussion.
"I’m more sure that the Catholic faith is true," she told me, "that I’m Catholic because I really believe it, not just because I grew up in the church."
What a journey: teachings that underpin tales like Owen’s, faith and reason together, stirring the soul while igniting the intellect, prodding us toward our better, braver selves.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.