The Escape of Fr. Gerard

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes and the Dormitory certainly celebrated (READ).  However, less well known story is the story of Father John Gerard, S.J.  A priest whose fate would intertwine with one of the men from mysterious gun powder treason.

He (b. 1564– d. 1637) was an English Jesuit priest, operating covertly during a time when Catholics were forced to attend Protestant services or pay a fine. (Only the wealthy could afford to remain openly Catholic, although under intense pressure to convert.) Pope St. Pius V’s 1570 bull Regnans in Excelsis exacerbated the situation by excommunicating Elizabeth and absolving her subjects from allegiance to her. Catholics were now seen as traitors to the realm. Jesuits were the subject of a special ire. This Elizabethan was the time in which Father Gerard lived.

He was the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn, near Ashton in Makerfield, Lancashire, who had been imprisoned in 1569 for plotting the rescue of Mary, Queen of Scots, from Tutbury Castle. So like Father, like son, John became and grew to become a devote catholic, and Jesuit priest.

g1He was smuggled into England after his ordination and dumped on a Norfolk beach at night, Fr. Gerard disguised himself as a country gentleman and traveled about the country saying Mass, preaching and ministering to the faithful in secret – always in constant danger. The houses in which he found shelter were frequently raided by “priest hunters”; priest-holes, hide-outs and hair-breadth escapes were part of his daily life. He was finally caught due to the betrayal by one of his followers.

He spent an entire month in chains doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius from memory. He describes the many uses for an orange. From the peel he made a rosary, while using the juice to write letters legible only when heated (so the recipient would know if the letter had been intercepted). Sometimes he bribed the guards to look the other way while he celebrated Mass and conducted retreats for his fellow prisoners.

Through it all, he writes, he was entirely ready to “water the Lord’s vineyard” with his blood. For six months he stayed in the Tower of London, Elizabethan England’s version of a maximum security prison. It was here that he underwent torture, an experience he describes in detail:

The chamber was underground and dark, particularly near the entrance. It was a vast place and every device and instrument of human torture was there. They pointed out some of them to me and said that I would try them all. Then they asked me again whether I would confess. “I cannot,” I said.

Yet he escaped in a famous exploit that is believed to have been masterminded by Nicholas Owen. With help from other members of the Catholic underground. Father John Gerard, along with John Arden, escaped on a rope strung across the Tower moat during the night of 4 October 1597. Despite the fact that his hands were still mangled from the tortures he had undergone, he succeeded in climbing down. He even arranged for the escape of his gaoler (jailer), with whom he had become friendly, and who he knew would be held responsible for the jailbreak. Immediately following his escape, he joined Henry Garnet and Robert Catesby in Uxbridge. Later, Gerard moved to the house of Dowager Elizabeth Vaux at Harrowden. From this base of operations, he continued his priestly ministry, and reconciled many to the Catholic Church, including Sir Everard Digby (one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot).

If anyone would like to draw a picture of possible Father Gerard mask in the spirit of the Guy Fawkes Mask be sure to upload it to and share it with us at the Catholic Dormitory:

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