Nicholas, also called “Little John,” because of his small stature was born at Oxford in the year 1550. He saved the lives of many priests and laypersons in England during the penal times (1559-1829), when a series of statutes punished Catholics for the practice of their faith. Over a period of about 20 years, Nicholas used his skills to build secret hiding places for priests throughout the country.
His work, which he did completely by himself as both architect and builder, was so good that time and time again, priests in hiding were undetected by raiding parties. Nicholas was a genius at finding and creating places of safety: subterranean passages, small spaces between walls, impenetrable recesses.
At one point, he was even able to mastermind the escape of two Jesuits from the Tower of London. Whenever Nicholas set out to design such hiding places, he began by receiving the holy Eucharist, and turning to God in prayer throughout the long, dangerous construction process.
After a number of narrow escapes, he himself was finally caught in 1594. Despite protracted torture, Nicholas refused to disclose the names of other Catholics. After being released following the payment of a ransom, “Little John” went back to his work. He was arrested again in 1606. This time he was subjected to horrible tortures, suffering an agonizing death..
Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is 22nd March.