Saint of the Day – 3 February – Blessed John Nelson SJ (1535-1578) Priest Martyr, English Jesuit Martyr who was executed during the reign of Elizabeth I. Born in 1534 at Skelton, Yorkshire, England and died by being hung, drawn and quartered on 3 February 1578 at Tyburn, London England. Additional Memorial 29 October as one of the Martyrs of Douai.
John Nelson was born in Yorkshire in 1535 and was the son of Sir Nicholas Nelson. He was known for his intense practice of the faith and never feared to practice Catholicism openly although Queen Elizabeth’s government was unfavourable to Catholics and spies abounded. John was convinced that it was only by the shedding of blood that England could again be restored to the faith and driven by this firm conviction, at the age of 40, he left for Flanders and studied at the English college at Douai. He was delighted when his younger brothers, Martin and Thomas, followed him to Douai in 1574 and 1575 respectively. John was Ordained a Priest in 1576 at Bynche and 5 months later, he and 4 other newly Ordained Priests, left the continent for their native land England.
Fr Nelson spent only 1 year in his Priestly ministry and was forced to celebrate Mass secretly in Catholic households. On 1 December 1577, as he was reading his Breviary in the evening at his London residence, Priest-hunters surprised him and arrested him on suspicion of him being a Catholic Priest. He was brought to London’s Newgate Prison. A week after he was arrested, he was taken before the Queen’s High Commissioners but he adamantly refused to recognise the Queen’s authority over the Church. When asked who then was the Head of the Church, he unequivocally answered, that it was the Pope. He also boldly declared, when asked of the Queen’s position, that she was a schismatic, a heretic and that the religion practiced in England was of her own making. At his trial, he repeated the same remarks and because he refused to take the oath acknowledging the Queen’s supremacy in religious matters, he was found guilty of High Treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor.
Fr Nelson spent the last two days of his life in a dark, damp, vermin-infested dungeon where he spent his time fasting, praying and preparing for death. On his execution day, 3 February 1578, he refused to see several Protestant ministers, after meeting with family members. When asked to beg pardon of the Queen, he responded, “I will ask no pardon of her, for I have never offended her.” He was then dragged to Tyburn for execution. Just before he was hanged, Fr Nelson asked the Catholics present to pray with him and aloud he recited the Creed, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, all in Latin. He then encouraged the bystanders to remain steadfast in their faith, asked forgiveness of all whom he might have offended and beseeched God to forgive his enemies and executioners. Just as he was finishing these words he was hanged. He was cut down while still alive to make him further suffer disembowelment. His severed head was then displayed on London’s Bridge and portions of his body exhibited at each of the city’s four gates.
Fr Nelson had been an admirer of the Jesuits since he had met them in France and as there was no Jesuit mission in England until 1580, 2 years after his death, he had written to the French Jesuits during his imprisonment for permission to be admitted to the Society. The Jesuits were happy to accept him, especially one about to be Martyred for Christ.
Fr John Nelson was Beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 9 December 1886, togetherWITH other Jesuit martyrs of England and Wales.
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