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A Keith Man: A Brief life of St John Ogilvie

Image from St Thomas's Keith

As a Keith man born and bred, I have known John Ogilvie for all of my 66 years, becoming more involved with his remarkable life in the second half of that time.

He was Blessed John Ogilvie in my youth, then in 1976 the Jesuit martyr, a native of my area of Banffshire, became the first Post Reformation saint in Scotland when canonised at St Peter’s in Rome. By then I was a journalist. I reported from afar on the occasion and have written about John Ogilvie many times since.

It is a story that deserves to be told, part of the great heritage of the Catholic Church in Scotland and a source of inspiration for us all, drawing on John Ogilvie to feel stronger and more confident in what we believe in.

I have been asked here to focus more on his early years; me a man from Keith writing about another who through an unwavering strength of faith, courage, perseverance and humility is revered as a major figure of history, in his home town, in Scotland and in the Catholic Church.

John was dead by the age of 36. His relatively short life started in 1579, as the first son of Walter Ogilvie, Baron of Drum-na-Keith, whose brother had the neighbouring Milton Castle and estate. Their father James had been Treasurer to Mary Queen of Scots and the family tree is said to have stretched back to William, King of Scotland, and Queen Margaret, who would also become a Saint.

Twenty years before the birth, John Knox had led the way to switching Scotland’s state religion from Catholicism to Calvinism, later known as Presbyterianism, and there were fierce purges to stamp out the Catholic faith. Although some of the nobility may have had Catholic leanings, few were willing to show them for fear of losing their lands, wealth and status.

So John was a Calvinist and at age 13 his father decided that he should travel in Europe to further his education and experiences of life in order to be better equipped for playing a prominent role in Scottish affairs.

A permit was required to visit still-Catholic Europe. It was granted and he set off with a relative, visiting France, Germany and Italy, coming across scholars, both Calvinist and Catholic, discussing religion. It led to a brave decision at age 17 to convert to Catholicism and we can only imagine the torment this must have caused within his family. It is not known if he ever saw them again.

The Jesuit order was close to his heart and John criss-crossed Europe to achieve his aim of becoming a priest. He enrolled in the Scots College in Louvain, Belgium, he took his vows at Graz In the Austrian Tyrol and in 1610 was ordained in Paris, aged 31.

Appointed a confessor to students in Rouen, France, Father John met priests exiled from Scotland for saying Mass or ministering to people. Realising the heavy burden on Scots Catholics, he longed to return to his homeland.

Twice he was refused permission by his superiors, but his perseverance paid off. There were no other Jesuit priests in Scotland, perhaps no priests at all, so this was an extraordinary vote of confidence in an inexperienced priest.

To evade spies, he landed in Scotland in 1613 as John Watson, a soldier returning from European wars and now trying his hand at horse dealing.

The story from then on is perhaps better known, of how he carried out covert missionary work, mainly around Edinburgh, Glasgow and Renfrewshire. He is said to have penetrated Edinburgh Castle to comfort prisoners. “The harvest here is very great, the labourers here are very few,” he wrote.

But the net was closing in on Father John. He travelled to reconcile five men to the Church, but one was a spy who had contacted the Protestant Archbishop of Glasgow. A trap was set and the priest was arrested on October 14, 1614.

Imprisoned for five months, Father John was subjected to starvation, beatings, torture and sleep deprivation ...... but he met it all with equanimity, humour and courage. He even engaged in religious arguments with ministers.

Moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh for further investigation by the Privy Council of the King, he endured the torture of the Vigil or Waking which had been designed to ensure confessions of witchcraft. Over eight days and nine nights, he was kept awake by being punched, thrown to the stone floor, and being pierced by sharp instruments or witch’s bridles. Still John refused to give the names of Catholics he had been ministering to, and resisted threats and promises to save his skin.

Banishment for saying Mass, like others, was no longer an option. King James VI of Scotland and Ist of England had become involved and demanded that Ogilvie repudiate the Pope and accept the ‘divine right’ of the King in all matters, spiritual and temporal. The prisoner refused and was put on trial for treason at the Tolbooth in Glasgow’s Square on March 10, 1615. Father John declared “he would die in defence of the King’s civil authority, but he could not obey him on spiritual matters”. Two hours later the verdict of guilty was announced and he was ordered to be hanged that afternoon. He prayed briefly on the scaffold and threw his rosary into the crowd. With murmurs of injustice in the watching crowd, his body was spirited away to be buried secretly in a criminal’s plot on the outskirts of Glasgow.In the years that followed, the John Ogilvie story was told throughout Europe and he was revered as a martyr.

As a result of the Reformation, the Catholic Church almost died, but was kept alive in corners of Scotland, including in John Ogilvie’s homeland of Banffshire.

In 1929 the martyr was beatified by Pope Pius XI. In the early 1960s two Jesuit priests in Glasgow paved the way for canonisation, with the devotion to John Ogilvie climaxing with a proclaimed miracle in 1967. Docker John Fagin, from Easterhouse in the city, recovered from terminal stomach cancer and church investigations stated there was “no natural explanation” for it.

Mr Fagin attended the canonisation in May, 1976, as did my father James, as part of a group from St Thomas’ Church in Keith. He was invited to take part in the offertory procession, for which he received a special a medal from Pope Paul VI, canonised himself in 2018. The medal was my late dad’s proudest possession, and now it is in my keeping.

In St Thomas’ we have a special side chapel dedicated to Saint John, an exhibition on his life, in the main church a stained glass window from his days as Blessed, and the parish has the title of a diocesan shrine to the Saint.

There is a street named after St John Ogilvie in Keith as one of our greatest historical figures. We are a small town but one with a big story to tell the present and future generations about this remarkable man.

Mike Collins | Keith

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