|Edward Oldcorne and Nicholas Owen, engraving by Gaspar Bouttats|
FATHER OLDCORNE." Since I have mentioned Father Oldcorne's residence, I will set forth in short how he came to take up his abode there. When he first arrived in England he stayed some time with the Superior, as he had no place of his own to go to. At a little distance from his Superior's residence in the country, there was a fine house belonging to a Catholic gentleman, a prisoner in the Tower of London for the Faith."
This was Thomas Abington, whose wife was Lord Mounteagle's sister, and he was in the Tower in 1588 on the pretext of the Babington Plot. "The house, ,, Father Gerard says in the "Narrative of the Powder Plot," 1 "was called Henlip, two miles distant from the city of Worcester, and so large and fair a house that it might be seen over great part of the country; and indeed it was so fair and commodious a house that it had often caused the owner of it much trouble, being an eyesore unto some Puritans of great wealth that were neighbours within some miles, and nothing so well seated ; who therefore procured often warrants to search that house in hope to find some priest there, for which the house and whole estate of the gentleman might be forfeited to the king, and so begged by them that were the causers and actors of such apprehension. But this being often essayed was never permitted by God until" the time when Fathers Garnet and Oldcorne were taken there, soon after the Gunpowder Plot. Dorothy was the name of Thomas Abington's sister, of whose conversion 2 by Father Oldcorne Father Gerard next speaks. " He had a sister, a heretic, who had been bought up at the Queen's court. There she had drank so deep of the poison of heresy, that no physician could be found to cure her, though many had tried. She readily spoke with them all about religion, but she did so all for the sake of argument, and not for the sake of learning. Thus no profit was made of an excellent Catholic's house, of which she had the charge while her brother was away. The house was one which surpassed all in the county for beauty, pleasant situation, and the many advantages it offered to Catholics.
"After many attempts had been made on the lady without effect, Father Garnet wished Father Oldcorne to go and try his hand for once. He went, and found her very obstinate; he plied her with arguments from Scripture, reason, and authority, but all in vain. The woman's obstinacy however did not foil the man's perseverance. He turned to God, and strove to cast out the dumb devil by prayer and fasting. She, seeing the Father eating nothing for the first and second day, began to wonder at his way of going on. Led on notwithstanding by obstinacy or curiosity, she said to herself, 'Perhaps he is not a man but an angel; so I will see whether he subsists on angels' food ; and if he does not, he shall not convert me.'
"Accordingly the good Father kept up his fast for four days without tasting anything. By this steadfastness he discomfited the devil, and the woman was cured from that hour. He had truly obtained for her ears to hear, for from being very obstinate and headstrong, she became henceforth very obedient and humble. Indeed it seems likely that the reason why other priests could not win her to God. was because the Divine Providence had destined her for this Father, and designed not only her, but nearly the whole county to be brought over in consequence. He lived for sixteen years together in this residence and by his fruitful labours in this and the neighbouring counties, he won many to the faith, strengthened the wavering, and restored the fallen, besides stationing priests in divers places." Or, as Father Gerard expresses it elsewhere, " In which time of his abode in those parts it is not easy to be believed how many obstinate heretics he converted, how many weak Catholics he confirmed, how many scholars he sent over to the Seminaries and religious women to monasteries, how many houses he brought to that degree of devotion that he might and did settle priests in them"
"This it was that made several apply to him what St. Jerome writes of St. John, that 'he founded and governed all the domestic churches in those parts;' and in good sooth all looked up to him as their father. Such was his prudence, that he fully satisfied all; such his diligence and endurance of toil, that he never failed anyone in the hour of need ; and his alms supplied the wants of many poor Catholics. In fact his house might have been one of our residences in a Catholic country, such was the number of Catholics flocking there to the Sacraments, to hear his sermons, and to take advice in their doubts. His helpmate was Father Thomas Lister, 3 a man of distinguished learning.
"While thus serving others, Father Oldcorne treated his own body with great harshness. Not satisfied with the labours I have set forth, and his 'care for all the churches' in those parts, which really in great measure seemed to depend on him for everything, he had many ways of macerating his flesh. He applied hard to study while at home. Of his fasts I have already spoken. He made use of the hair-shirt, and still more of the discipline, with great fervour. By all this put together, while he thought only of chastising his enemy and bringing it under subjection, he nearly made himself an unprofitable servant. First he broke a blood-vessel, which caused him to vomit blood in quantities. He managed to get over this, but almost every year he fell into such a weakness that his strength could hardly be restored. From this infirmity there came a cancer in his mouth, which increased to such a degree as to be incurable. The doctors said, as he told me afterwards, that some bones which seemed decayed would have to be taken out. The good Father fearing thereby to be hindered from preaching, in which he was gifted with a marvellous talent, resolved first to go on a pilgrimage to St. Winifred's Well, a famous place and a sort of standing miracle.
" St. Winifred was a holy maiden in North Wales, comely of face, and comelier still for her faith and love of chastity. A son of one of the Welsh chieftains loved her and sought her hand. She rejected him, as well on account of his being a heathen, as because she had already vowed her virginity to God at the hands of the bishop of the place, and was unwilling to yield it to man. The enraged chieftain's love turned into fury, and he cut off the maiden's head with a stroke of his sword. As this happened on the slope of a hill, the head rolled down to the bottom, where instantly burst forth a powerful spring of water. Ever since, the glen, which before got its name from its dryness, 4 has had in it a copious stream of water, which takes its rise at that spring and flows on to the sea. Such a volume of water gushes out of the spring every minute, that it suffices to turn a mill at fifty paces distance. There are very large stones in the well, all red, as if covered with fresh blood. The people of the place are very loth to allow pieces to be cut off. Such pieces are also red, and the place of the cut changes from white to red in time. In the stream are also found many stones either covered or sprinkled with blood. The Catholics gather these, and treasure them up as objects of devotion, as they do the sweet-smelling moss that sticks to the stones. 5 The water in it is very cold ; but drinking it or bathing in it out of devotion has never done anyone any harm. I myself have taken several draughts together fasting without hurt. On the feast of St. Winifred (the 3rd of November), the water rises a foot higher than usual. It turns red on that day, and on the morrow is clearer than before. I visited it once on that day to witness the change, and found the water troubled and of a reddish hue, whereas it is generally so clear that you can see a pin at the bottom. It was winter, and freezing so hard at the time, that, though the ice had been broken the night before by the people crossing the stream, I had hard work to ford it on horseback the first thing next morning. Notwithstanding this severe frost, I went into the well, as all pilgrims do, and lay down and prayed there for a quarter of an hour. On coming out my shirt was of course dripping wet, but I did not change. I put on my clothes over it, and took no harm whatever.
"These are wonderful facts, but in addition to them very signal miracles are often wrought there. A heretic visitor seeing the Catholics bathe out of devotion, said scoffingly, ' What makes these fellows bathe in this water ? —I'll wash my boots in it' He jumped in as he was with his boots on, and sword in hand. No sooner had he done so than he felt the supernatural power of the water, which before he had refused to believe. He was at once palsied and lost the use of his limbs, and his sword could hardly be got out of his hand. For several years he was drawn about in a little cart, a cripple, to punish his own unbelief and to strengthen the belief of others. I myself have spoken to several persons who saw the lame man, and heard the story vouched for both by the man himself and by all who knew him. I learnt from them that the cripple afterwards repented, and recovered his soundness in the same well where he had lost it. There are many other stories of the same sort.
"Such was the place where the blessed Father Oldcorne determined to go, but St. Winifred was beforehand with him. He chanced on his way to reach the house of two maiden sisters, poor indeed in their way of life, but rich in the fear of God. They lived together in His service, keeping a priest in their house, whom they supported and honoured as a father. This good priest had a stone taken out of the stream that flows from the well, sprinkled with blood as I described before. He used to place it on the altar with the other relics. When Father Oldcorne saw it, he took it and kissed it with great reverence. Then going apart he fell on his knees and began to lick the stone, praying inwardly as he held part of it in his mouth. In half an hour all pain was gone, and the disease was cured. He travelled on to the well, however, rather to return thanks than to ask any further favour. There he recovered also from the weakness of body which was thought to have brought on the cancer, and returned home as strong and hale as he had been for many a year. These are the words in which Father Oldcorne himself told me the story. The priest also, in whose abode he found the stone, lately vouched for the facts when I met him at St. Omers. He gave me an account of other marvels that happened at the death of Father Oldcorne, of which hereafter. So much then for Father Oldcorne, I return now to my own poor self."
1 Condition of Catholics, p. 149.
2 Ibid - p. 283.
3 As this Father was imprisoned at Middleburg in Lent 1598, his work with Father Oldcorne must by that time have ended, and about the end of Elizabeth's reign he was stationed "with Mr. Cotton of Warblington in Hampshire." Troubles, First Series, pp. 166, 191.
4 " Beunonus igitur cum Teuyth patrocinio suum fixit tugurium in convalle quӕ Britonum lingua Sechnant appellabatur." From the Life of St. Winifred in Cott. MSS. Claud. A. 5, published in the Lives of the Cambro-British Saints, Llandovery, 1843, p. 199.
5 The red lichen and the moss are both odoriferous. Of the former Pennant says that "the stone to which it adheres easily betrays itself by the colour being as if smeared with blood, and, if rubbed, yields a smell like violets."