St. Nicholas Owen
Son of a carpenter, Nicholas was raised in a family dedicated to the persecuted Church, and became a capenter and mason. Two of his brothers became priests, another a printer of underground Catholic books, and Nicholas used his building skills to save the lives of priests and help the Church‘s covert work in England.
Nicholas worked with Saint Edmund Campion, sometimes using the pseudonym John Owen; his short stature led to the nickname Little John. When Father Edmund was martyred, Nicholas spoke out against the atrocity. For his trouble, he was imprisoned.
Father Henry Garnet, Superior of English Jesuits, employed Nicholas to construct hiding places and escape routes in the various mansions used as priest-centers throughout England. By day he worked at the mansion on regular wood– and stone-working jobs at the mansions so that no one would question his presence; by night he worked alone, digging tunnels, creating hidden passages and rooms in the house. Some of his rooms were large enough to hold cramped, secretive prayer services, but most were a way for single clerics to escape the priest-hunters. As there were no records of his work, there is no way of knowing how many of these hiding places he built, or how many hundreds of priests he saved. The anti–Catholic authorities eventually learned that the hiding places existed, but had no idea who was doing the work, or how many there were.
Due to the work, the danger, and the periodic arrests of the Jesuits, Nicholas never had a formal novitiate, but he did receive instruction, and in 1577 became a Jesuit Brother. On April 23, 1594 he was arrested in London and lodged in the Tower of London for his association with Father John Gerard. Not knowing who they had, the authorities released Nicholas soon after, and he resumed his work.
On November 5, 1605, Brother Nicholas and three other Jesuits were forced to hide in Hinlip Hall, a structure with at least 13 of his hiding places, to escape the priest-hunters. Owen spent four days in one of his secret rooms, but having no food or water, he finally surrendered and was taken to a London prison. There he was endlessly tortured for information on the underground network of priests and their hiding. He was abused so violently that on 1 March 1606, while suspended from a wall, chained by his wrists, with weights on his ankles, his stomach split open, spilling his intestines to the floor; he survived for hours before dying from the wound. Because he was under orders not to kill Nicholas, the torturer spread the lie that Owen had committed suicide. One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.