One of the characters to emerge from my study of Elizabethan England is the marvelous saint Nicholas Owen. Known as ‘Little John’, Owen was a Jesuit lay brother. A carpenter from Oxford, he was only a little bit taller than a dwarf. A loyal, Samwise Gamgee kind of hobbitish fellow, he was a sturdy, hardworking and faithful servant. He is the man who designed and built countless ‘priest holes’ in recusant country houses across England. The queen’s ‘poursuivants’ or searchers for priests were thorough and tireless. To stay one step ahead of them Owen had to devise increasingly cunning hiding places. He would build false walls and then put another false wall in front of it so when they tapped and found it hollow and tore the wall down they would find an empty hiding place–never supposing that the real hiding place was in another wall behind that one. He used sewage drains, false chimney flues, fake attics and underfloor hiding places. Often he would even build in a hole to be used as a toilet and minute holes in the walls through which a straw could be placed so the priest (who might have to hide there for days or even weeks) could be fed secretly.
Little John was captured thrice. The first time he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The second time, in the tower he was tortured. The final time he was captured in the crackdown after the Gunpowder Plot. Despite cruel torture he never revealed his hiding places, and he finally died under torture in the tower.
What I like about Nicholas Owen is his stout and determined faith. He never gave in and shows the kind of courage in the face of adversity of all the great saints. I also like his littleness. Somehow he shows us the stalwart courage of all God’s ‘little’ saints. He was not only little physically, but he was comparatively unlearned and unpolished. He was, like Jesus himself, only a carpenter, but he displayed heroism and a ‘bigness’ to shame us all. He’s leaping up in my gallery of saints, and I pray for a measure of his greatness.