St. David Lewis, SJ

(1616-1679)

David Lewis was a Welshman of good family, born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, in 1616. His father Morgan Lewis belonged to an old Catholic family, but had become a Protestant. His mother, Margaret Prichard, was Catholic, however, and all but one of their nine children were raised Catholics except David himself.

After attending the Royal Grammar School at Abergavenny, David, then aged 16, was sent to London to study law at the Middle Temple. Three years later he lost interest in the legal profession and went to France as tutor of the son of one Count Savage. Probably he was reconciled to the Catholic Church while living in Paris. He then went back to Wales for a couple of years, but in 1638 he set out for Rome to study for the priesthood at the Venerable English College. Ordained a secular priest in 1642, he entered the Jesuits two years later. The Jesuit superiors sent him as a missionary to Wales in 1646 but recalled him soon afterward to be spiritual director of the English College.

In 1648 he was sent back to Wales, and there he was to remain for good. He was assigned to a remote farmhouse at the Cwm, where the Jesuits maintained their western center, called the College of St. Francis Xavier. For some 50 years this spot was the hideout of Jesuits and other hunted priests from miles around. During the next 31 years Father David worked the Welsh-English borderlands where there were many recusants (Catholics who refused to conform to Anglicanism). He was most zealous in the care he gave to both their spiritual and bodily needs. They called him “tad v tlodion”, “Father of the Poor”.

In 1678 the Infamous Titus Oates claimed to have discovered an international plot to kill King Charles II and force England back into the Roman fold. Oates was a total rascal, but the very rumor of such a plot was enough to stir up a new persecution of Catholics. Royal officials pounced on Cwm College, and the Jesuits there barely escaped.

Father Lewis went into hiding elsewhere in Wales, but he was not safe for long. Dorothy James, wife of a former servant of Fr. David, had tried to get some money from him under false pretenses. Now she and her husband both apostatized, and she was going about swearing that “she would wash her hands in Mr. Lewis’s blood, and would have his head to make porridge of, as a sheep’s head.” She managed to discover the Jesuit’s hiding place, and she set the soldiery on his trail. Six dragoons arrested him on November 17, 1678, just as he was going to celebrate Mass. Three magistrates locked him up in Monmouth jail, where he remained for two months. He was tried at the March assizes. The judge condemned him to being hanged, drawn and quartered. There was an interlude during which he was taken up to London to be examined by the Privy Council on the Titus Oates Plot. He could give them no information because there was none to give, and he refused what was apparently an offer of forgiveness if he would conform to the Anglican Church.

Brought back to Usk, he was hanged there on August 27, 1679. The gallows was set up by a bungling convict who was offered his freedom for playing hangman. (The official executioner and his assistants had fled; so, too; had the amateur, who finally ran off when threatened by the crowd with stoning. A blacksmith was finally bribed to carry out the death sentence, but after he did so, nobody in the area would give him any business. Lewis was apparently too well thought of in the neighborhood for his execution to be popular!)

According to custom, Father Lewis was allowed to give a farewell speech from the scaffold. The address, which he wrote while in jail, has been preserved, and it was a rousing one. He said that while his flesh and blood urged him to demand revenge, the Gospel commanded forgiveness of enemies, and he would obey the Gospel. He urged all his listeners to fear God, honor the King, stand firm in the faith and avoid mortal sin.

“Here is a numerous assembly,” he continued, “may the great Saviour of the world save every soul of you all. … My religion is the Roman Catholic. … If all the good things of the world were offered me to renounce it, all should not remove me one hair’s breadth from my Roman Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic I am, a Roman Catholic priest I am, a Roman Catholic priest of… the Society of Jesus I am, and I bless God who first called me. I was condemned for reading Mass, hearing confessions, and administering the sacraments … and therefore, dying for this I die for religion!”

David Lewis was canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 25, 1970, as one of the “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.”

–Fr. Robert F. McNamara

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