St. Mason??

Yup, there’s even a Catholic reason to name a kid “Mason.”

“Mason” is one of the many English surnames based on profession – in this case, the profession of stonemason. Most Americans with the first name “Mason”  were either named for a family surname, or were historically named for George Mason: a Virginia patriot of the Revolutionary War, and one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He was one of the big adamant supporters of a Bill of Rights both for the US and for Virginia. At the Constitutional Convention and in his pamphlet, Objections to the Constitution, he also called for an immediate outlawing of the slave trade (on the grounds that importing slaves would make the nation more vulnerable to takeover, but at least he was trying). Even though his ideas lost at the time, everybody else finally ended up agreeing with him.

But I said there’s a Catholic reason to name a kid “Mason,” right?

Blessed John Mason was an ordinary Catholic layman, a servant in Oxfordshire, working at the house of a Mr. Owen. On November 7, 1791, he attended a Mass said at Swithin Well’s house (in Holborn, London) by St. Edmund Gennings, a Catholic convert who’d been ordained at Douay.

During Mass, a raid was led on the house by Richard Topcliffe, a “pursuivant” who was also an Elizabethan psychopath with a government funded murder house. Topcliffe tried to get into the room upstairs where Mass was being said. He and his people broke down the door. Bl. John Mason rushed Topcliffe, grabbed him, wrestled with him, and actually tumbled them both downstairs. It was a darned good try.

The rest of the male members of the congregation drew their weapons, and used their swords to hold off the raid until Mass was over. (It’s a Catholic theological point that a Mass that has gotten to the point where the Canon/Eucharistic prayers are said, must be finished by the priest or by another priest, if remotely possible.) Topcliffe got Mason off him and came back upstairs “with a broken head.” Fr. Plasden called out that they would surrender peacefully once Mass was over, and for once Topcliffe went along with it.

Then the guys with weapons kept Plasden’s word and surrendered peacefully (since there was no other way out, and they were extremely outnumbered). St. Swithin Wells was not there to be captured, but his wife Alice was. Others included the priest, St. Edmund Gennings, another priest (possibly named Gennings also), St. Polydore Plasden (also a priest; he was hung, drawn, and quartered for the crime of being one and then coming to England), and Mason’s fellow laymen: the lawyer Bl. Sidney Hodgson, and the gentleman Bl. Brian Lacey.

On getting home, Swithin Wells found his house shut up and all the people gone. His neighbors told him about the arrest of his wife, along with all the others. He was an old man, but had no fear. St. Swithin went to the examining judge, complained, and bravely demanded his wife and his housekeys. He was then arrested and thrown into Newgate too, in shackles. When examined the next day, he testified that he hadn’t been at Mass but wished he’d been able to come. He loved the example of St. Thomas More, and joked a lot during his imprisonment. He was eventually charged and executed for having acted as a server at a Mass a few days before the raid.

Topcliffe knew that Bl. Brian Lacey had been traveling around England with another priest, Bl. Montford Scott, before Scott was captured and executed. So Topcliffe tortured Lacey severely to try to get the locations of the priest-friendly houses where they’d stayed. He gave them nothing. He was a tough guy, who had already been imprisoned in Newgate for Catholic activities. (Unfortunately, it was his own brother, Richard Lacey of Brockdish, Norfolk, had given information to the government about Lacey’s carrying Catholic letters and helping Fr. Scott.)

On December 6, 1591, Bl. John Mason was arraigned and tried before the King’s Bench at the Old Bailey, along with Gennings, Wells, Plasden, Hodgson, and a guy who’d been captured during the summer, Bl. Edmund White.

Bl. John Mason was originally charged with having known the whereabouts of a Catholic priest and not reporting it within three days. Mason pointed out that he’d only known the priest’s whereabouts for one day. “I was taken in his company, and therefore you know not what I would have done, if I had had longer time.” (Catholics who got captured liked to point out the stupidity of the persecution laws.) They couldn’t get past this logic, so he was tried and condemned as an “aider and abettor of priests.” They asked him if he were sorry for having rushed Topcliffe.

He said, “No; if it were to do again, I would resist the wicked, that they should not have God’s priests. Yea, although I were to be punished with twenty deaths.”

He was sentenced to be hung until he was dead at Tyburn, London on December 10, 1591, as were Sydney Hodgson and Brian Lacey. Their executions took place along with those of White, Plasden, and Lacey. Moved by Plasden’s statement of loyalty to England and the queen, Sir Walter Raleigh intervened for Plasden, first arguing with Topcliffe that Plasden should not be executed, and then making sure he was hung until completely dead and then having the drawing and quartering done on his corpse. This didn’t happen for White, whom they kept alive for quite a while. Mason and the other men sentenced to hanging were buried at the side of the road. The drawn and quartered men had their quarters sent to various parts of the city, as was the custom for “traitors.”

St. Swithin Wells and St. Edmund Gennings were hung on December 10, 1591, from a gallows that was erected in Grays’ Inn Fields on the north side of Holborn, practically right outside St. Swithun Wells’ house. Nothing like a little terror in the neighborhood. At Topcliffe’s order, Jennings was hanged so quickly, and then cut down again so quickly, that when they cut him down from the noose, he was able to stand up by himself. The hangman tripped him, in order to get his head on the block, and then they proceeded to draw and quarter him. Gennings loudly cried out, “Oh, it smarts.” After being ripped up and having his guts thrown into a fire (that’s the drawing part of “drawing and quartering”), and with the executioner having cut out his heart and held it up, Gennings was heard to say in Latin, “Sancte Gregori, ora pro me.” (St. Gregory, pray for me.)

St. Swithin Wells was hung until he was dead. He was allowed to be buried by his friends in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Holborn.

Alice Wells was spared from being executed, but instead was kept in prison until she died in 1602. Yay! So merciful!

Being Catholic isn’t for sissies. We have to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, and we never know where that will lead. But we can trust that it will bring us to eternal life.

Blessed John Mason, pray for us!

You can read more about Fr. Jennings/Genings/Gennings, Swithun Wells, and the raid on his house in this book from the time, The Life and Death of Mr. Edmund Genings, Priest.

You can also read Acts of English Martyrs Hitherto Unpublished by John Hungerford Pollen, S.J. It includes copies of primary documents. Most of the above came from the Relation of Fr. Andrew Young.

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Filed under Church, History, Saint Names, Saint Stories

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