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March 22

St Nicholas Owen - March 22

Saint Nicholas Owen

Jesuit Lay Brother, Martyr

(Around 1562 – 1606)

“I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.

Father Henry Garnet, SJ, speaking about Saint Nicholas Owen

Saint’s Life Story

Learned Carpentry as a Teenager 

Nicholas was born in Oxford, England, around 1562 into a devoutly Catholic family and grew up during the Penal Laws.   His father, Walter Owen, was a carpenter and Nicholas was apprenticed as a joiner in February 1577, where he acquired skills that he was to use in building hiding places.   Two of his older brothers became priests.   

Arrested and Released

Nicholas served as Saint Edmund Campion’s (1540-1381) assistant and was arrested for protesting Campion’s innocence.   Upon his release, he entered the service of Henry Garnet S.J. around 1588 and for the next 18 years built hiding places for priests in the homes of Catholic families.   Nicholas frequently travelled from one house to another, under the name of “Little John”, accepting only the necessities of life as payment before starting off for a new project. During the daytime he would work as a travelling carpenter to deflect suspicion.

Owen was only slightly taller than a dwarf. He suffered from a hernia as well as a crippled leg from a horse falling on him.   Nevertheless, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework and to minimize the likelihood of betrayal, Nicholas often worked at night and always alone.   

Built Hard to Find Hiding Places

Sometimes, Nicholas built an easily discovered outer hiding place which concealed an inner hiding place. The location of the secret room was known only to himself and the owner of the house.  Examples of his work survive at Sawston Hall (Cambs),[Oxborough] [Norfolk] Huddington Court (Worcestershire) and Coughton Hall (Warwickshire).   Harvington Hall in Worcestershire has seven “priest holes”.   Due to the ingenuity of his craftsmanship, some may still be undiscovered. 

Lay Brother with Jesuit Priest Henry Garnet

For many years, Nicholas worked in the service of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet and was admitted into the Society of Jesus as a lay brother.   He was arrested in 1594 and was tortured at the Poultry Compter but revealed nothing.   Nicholas was released after a wealthy Catholic family paid a fine on his behalf. Meanwhile, the jailers believed that he was merely the insignificant friend of some priests.   Nicholas resumed his work and is believed to have masterminded the famous escape of Father John Gerard from the Tower of London in 1597.

Arrested Again

Early in 1606, Nicholas was arrested a final time at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire, giving himself up voluntarily in hope of distracting attention from his master Fr Garnet who was hiding nearby with another priest.   Realizing just whom they had caught and his value, Secretary of State Robert Cecil exulted:  “It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his arrest… knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.”

Tortured to Death

After being committed to the Marshalsea, a prison on the southern bank of the Thames, Nicholas was then removed to the Tower of London.   He was submitted to terrible “examinations” on the Topcliffe rack, dangling from a wall with both wrists held fast in iron gauntlets and his body hanging.   As his hernia allowed his intestines to bulge out during this procedure, the rackmaster strapped a circular plate of iron to his stomach. When he remained stubborn, it is believed that he was transferred to the rack, where the greater power of the windlass forced out his hernia which was then slashed by the plate, resulting in his death.

Nicholas revealed nothing to his inquisitors and died in the night between March 1 and 2, 1606 in London, England. Nicholas was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on October 25, 1970.

Beatified:          December 15, 1929 by Pope Pius XI

Canonized:       October 25, 1970 by Pope John Paul VI

Feast Day:        March 22

Patron Saint:   Magicians and Escapologists



Saint Nicholas Owen possessed great faith and courage, and he is respected for this. However, what also makes him memorable is how he used a rather obscure skill and talent for the good of God. His ability to make hiding places ultimately became a tool of God for protecting others. Saint Nicholas reminds us that any of our talents, regardless of how seemingly random or unimportant, can be put to good use for the good of God and others.

What are your talents and how can you use them for good?

Source: Saint Nicholas Owen (d.1606) | Saint Mary’s Press (


Saint Nicholas, you remained loyal to God’s teachings despite whatever pain you faced during your torture. May you intercede and pray for us to stay strong to God’s word in spite of what obstacles that we may face in our day-to-day life.

Saint Nicholas Owen, pray for us. Amen.

Saint Links 

Aleteia – 40 English martyrs you may not know

All Saints & Martyrs – Saint Nicholas Owen – Forty Martyrs of England and Wales

AnaStpaul – Saint of the Day – 22 March – St Nicholas Owen S.J. (1562-1606) The Priest-Hole Builder – Martyr

Catholic Ireland – Oct 25 – The Forty Martyrs of England and Wale

CatholicSaints.Info – Saint Nicholas Owen

Franciscan Media – Saint Nicholas Owen

Independent Catholic News  – St. Nicholas Owen

National Catholic Register – The Little Saint Nicholas Owen

New Advent – Parker, A. (1911). Nicholas Owen. In The Catholic Encyclopedia

Wikipedia – Nicholas Owen (Jesuit)

Video Link

Saint of the Week: St Nicholas Owen – YouTube Video (The True Enlightenment!)

Saint of the Week: St Nicholas Owen – YouTube Video (The True Enlightenment!)