Two (other) Saint Nicholases: Flüe and Owen domain

On March 21 and 22, we commemorate two saints by the name of Nicholas. The first is Saint Nicholas of Flüe (1415 – 1487), patron of Switzerland, an odd saint, as he was a husband and father of ten children, who decided, with their consent – at least, that of his wife – retired from his busy life as a farmer, member of the assembly, councilor and judge, to become an ascetical hermit. He began his adult life as a proficient soldier, working his way up to captain, fighting with a sword in one hand, and a rosary in the other. But in later middle age, he gave everything up to live with and for God alone – while making provision for his family. One can only what his wife thought, and went through, and perhaps she should have been canonized as well. Nicholas from his own funds had a priest on hand in a chantry to say Mass daily, which he could attend. He was one of those few saints who lived on the Eucharist alone, for twenty years. After all, Christ did call it epiousios bread, or super-substantial, and it certainly has the potential power to sustain us. Nicholas’ counsel – which seemed supernaturally inspired – was sought by the high and low, and when he died on March 21, 1487, he was surrounded by his family, and mourned by the whole nation. Her hermitage became pilgrimage site on the Santiago de Compostela.

The Catechism cites saint Nichols of Flüe, and a prayer he composed (#226):

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

The second Nicholas had the last name of Owen, was a Jesuit lay brother during the tumultuous time in England of the Protestant revolt under Elizabeth I. After she was excommunicated by Pope Saint Pius V in 1570, the Tudor queen – whose legitimacy on different levels was questionable – began a persecution of Catholics that almost defies description in fury and intensity. Perhaps Shakespeare did not have her far from his mind with the words, ‘hell hath no fury...’. The Jesuits, still in the flush of their initial zeal, continued the work of sacramental ministry in England, constantly under threat of a gruesome death if captured.

Nicholas Owen was raised in a Catholic family, his two older brothers becoming priests, but Nicholas following his father’s trade of carpenter. With the persecutions, he began to dedicate his ‘off hours’ – often late a night – building priest hiding-holes in recusant manors, which were so well constructed that any number of them may yet to be found. Nicholas joined the Jesuits as a lay-brother to more fully consecrate himself and his work to God, and went about under various aliases. He was a servant of Edmund Campion, and was caught in 1581 for proclaiming Edmund’s innocence, but let go, spending the next eighteen years doing his work. It was said the good lay-brother saved untold thousands of lives, and who knows how many souls, by helping the priests continue their ministry.

Eventually, he was caught, giving himself up to save Father Henry Garnet, whom he was serving. Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, rejoiced, realizing what a fish they had caught. Nicholas was tortured mercilessly, hung from iron manacles, then racked, his hernia – from which he suffered all his life – eventually burst out, dying on the night of March 1/2, 1606. Through it all, the heroic brother never betrayed a word, but suffered in silence, like the Lord he served so well, and whose own trade he followed.

Nicholas Owen was canonized as one of the ’40 martyrs of England and Wales’ by Pope Saint Paul VI on October 25th, 1970. May he intercede for us all, especially the hidden laborers in the Lord’s vineyard.

Saint Nicholas and Saint Nicholas, orate pro nobis! +

(source: in partibus,