We think of St. Joseph as a carpenter, teaching the Lord Jesus his trade. In this Year of St. Joseph, we ought to honor another carpenter saint, Nicholas Owen, one of the English Martyrs, killed in 1606. His feast day is today.
St. Nicholas was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by St. Paul VI in October 1970. The pandemic put paid to the 50th anniversary celebrations last fall; those commemorations for St. Nicholas Owen and the others may take place this year.
“In the New Testament, the word ‘tekton’ appears, which was the profession of the Lord Jesus before his public ministry,” Pope Benedict XVI said in 2005, addressing the workers who built his library in the Apostolic Palace. “We usually translate the word as ‘carpenter’ because at that time houses were made mainly of wood. But more than a ‘carpenter,’ he was an ‘artisan’ who must have been able to do all that was required in building a house.”
St. Nicholas built “houses” for priests hiding from the fierce anti-Catholic persecution in 16th- and 17th-century England. Some of those “houses” were just a few feet tall and wide. These were the famous “priest holes,” built in the homes of Catholic families to hide the clandestine priest who would periodically visit to offer the Holy Mass and administer the sacraments.
Nicholas Owen was the master craftsman of priest holes. Agents would search the house, convinced that a priest was present, seeking to arrest him so that he could be tried and executed for exercising his priestly ministry. They would search high and low, but so well-designed were the priest holes that the man hiding inside would often not be found, remaining safe — if cramped and anxious — in the floor, or in the wall, or under the foundation.
“Perhaps no single person contributed more to the preservation of the Catholic religion in England during the penal times that a humble artisan called Nicholas Owen, who in the reign of James I saved the lives of many priests by his extraordinary skill in devising hiding places for them.” So reads the opening lines of his entry in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.
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