Today is the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. To celebrate this important Feast Day, I am posting about a worthy son of St Francis, the courageous Martyr, St John Wall. The photo is of the beautiful plaque which is in the Catholic Church at Harvington Hall. It depicts St John Wall in the guise of a gentleman of the period. At that time, priests worked covertly so it was not a good idea to advertise the fact that you were a priest. John’s Franciscan identity is evoked by the animals and birds which surround him. Of all the portrayals I have seen of St John Wall, I think this is my favourite. (Click on the picture to enlarge it for a better view.)
John Wall was born in Lancashire in 1620 into a pious Catholic family. He was baptised by Edmund Arrowsmith, who would suffer martyrdom in 1628. John was still quite young when his parents sent him to the English College at Douai. In those days of Penal Laws and harsh persecution of Catholics, there was always the risk of Government spies infiltrating the Colleges. For this reason, it became the practice for students to assume an alias in the slim hope of affording a little protection to themselves and to their families at home. At Douai, John adopted the alias of John Marsh.
On 5th November 1641, John enrolled at the English College in Rome where he continued to use the alias of John Marsh. At the English College he met the Welshman, David Lewis, and the two became firm friends. John, it is thought, was one of the students present in the Lateran Basilica on St Stephen’s Day, 26th December, 1642, when the recently ordained Fr David Lewis preached a short homily before Pope Urban VIII. John Wall was ordained on 3rd December 1645. He returned to England in 1648 but in 1651 he was back in Douai where he joined the Franciscan Friars Minor. He was professed the following year and took the name of Joachim of St Anne.
In 1656, Fr Joachim of St Anne, O F M, was sent upon the perilous English Mission. He spent the rest of his life diligently labouring in Worcestershire and neighbouring counties. In England, John used the aliases of Francis Johnson, Francis Webb and Francis Dormore. Harvington Hall, near Kidderminster, Worcestershire, was his base for about 12 years and during this period he was known as Francis Webb.
In late summer of 1678, the fictitious Oates/Popish Plot spewed across the land. Priests were ruthlessly hunted down. With the Government incentive of a reward of £50 for the apprehension of any priest, there was no shortage of informers! John Wall, however, was apprehended by an unfortunate accident. In December 1678, John was seized at Rushock Court near Bromsgrove when the Sheriff’s Deputy was searching for a debtor. John refused to take the Oath of Allegiance and was immediately imprisoned in Worcester Gaol. From prison he wrote; “Imprisonment, in these times especially, when none can send to their friends, nor friends come to them, is the best means to teach us how to put our confidence in God alone in all things ....”
On 25th April 1679, John Wall came before Judge Atkins for trial. He was indicted for high treason for being a priest and remaining in the country. Predictably, the Franciscan was found guilty and sentenced to death. When the verdict was delivered, John replied “Thanks be to God; God save the King; and I beseech God to bless your lordship, and all this honourable bench.” He was returned to prison to await his execution.
At the beginning of May 1679, John was taken to London to be examined by the plotters and perjurers, Titus Oates, William Bedloe, Stephen Dugdale and Myles Prance. Here again he met with his old friend, the Welsh Jesuit, Fr David Lewis. Fr Lewis, 80 year old Fr John Kemble and Fr Roger Hanslip had also been summoned to London and all four were lodged together in Newgate Prison. The four were detained in Newgate for about a month and each examined by Oates and his co-plotters in an attempt to implicate them in the non-existent Popish Plot. No evidence could be found against the priests, they could not be enticed or coerced into lying or apostatising to save their lives so, early in June, they were all sent back to their respective prisons to await their grim fate.
Fr Wall’s time came on 22nd August 1679. The Sheriff offered John the opportunity of dying the following day so that he would not have to endure the humiliation of dying with two common criminals! John gratefully declined, telling him that if it was good enough for Jesus, then it was good enough for him. Thus, John Wall, O F M, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Red Hill, Worcester. The Catholics of the town boldly accompanied his remains to St Oswald’s Churchyard where he was buried.
A fellow Friar, William Leveson, visited Fr Wall during his imprisonment. The English Franciscans at Douai are in possession of a letter written by Fr Leveson. In this letter, dated 25th August 1679, Fr Leveson wrote: “I found, contrary in both his and my expectation, the favour of being with him alone; and the day before his execution, I enjoyed that privilege for the space of four or five hours together; during which time I heard his confession, and communicated him to his great joy and satisfaction. I ventured likewise, through his desire, to be present at his execution, and placed myself boldly next to the Under-Sheriff, near the gallows, where I had the opportunity of giving him the last absolution, just as he was turned off the ladder.”
One week later, on 27th August, Fr John Wall’s classmate and good friend, Fr David Lewis, suffered martyrdom at Usk. On 15th December 1929, the Franciscan and the Jesuit were beatified by Pope Pius XI. Forty-one years later, on 25th October 1970, Pope Paul VI canonised the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Fr David Lewis S J and Fr John Wall O F M were among the Forty.
On the beautiful feast of St Francis of Assisi, 4th October 2009, I timidly ventured into an unknown country. Blogland! So, today is my First Anniversary as a blogger. How has it been? Well, I am still finding my way around this vast cyber territory but I am no longer timid and I think I have learned a lot. I know that out there in Blogland there are so many, many great people and, to my own wonder and surprise, quite a few of them I regard as dear friends. A year ago I was of the opinion that calling someone you hadn’t actually met a “friend” was a seriously foolish notion. How wrong I was! Here we are, my blog and I, a whole year older and I am so pleased to call you friends. For me, as you know, this has been a year of more “downs” than “ups” and that is where you bloggers have shown real friendship. For that I thank you all. As I begin my second year of blogging to promote our wonderful Welsh Jesuit Martyr, St David Lewis, I look forward to your visits and comments and to visiting all of you. While cherishing the old friends, I welcome the new. Thank you, my friends, and may God bless you all.