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Saint Edmund Gennings

The following story appeared in the December 3 Idaho Catholic Register.

By Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

At the end of summer of 1591, Father Edmund Gennings and his friend, Father Ploydore Plasden, secretly returned to England in the shroud of night. The English citizens had been in France, where they could study and be ordained to the Catholic priesthood in safety.

To be a Catholic priest in England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was an act of treason, punishable by a death of torture and humiliation. But Father Edmund and Father Polydore refused to ignore their call to bring the sacraments and comfort to the persecuted Catholics of England. Their clandestine arrival was only the beginning of a series of events that would ultimately lead to their martyrdom for the Church and its sacraments.

Father Edmund Gennings was born in 1566 in Lichfield, England. Most likely, his family converted to Anglicanism during the bloody reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), who, in the 1530s, defied the pope and the Catholic Church by naming himself, and any heir to the throne, head of the Church of England. During Henry’s reign, Lichfield suffered great losses due to the dissolution of monasteries, convents and shrines. Many Catholics converted to Protestantism to save their families from starvation, imprisonment and death.

Edmund was a serious student, who did well at school. Because he was so intelligent, when he was 16, he was sent to be a page for Sir Richard Sherwood. The Sherwood family received heavy fines for their Catholicism, and members of the family were in and out of jail on false charges. Despite the persecutions, they frequently had secret Masses in their home and hid priests from soldiers.

Edmund was impressed by the Sherwood family’s integrity and faith. He would spend hours with Sir Richard discussing the scriptures and Church Fathers. He was secretly received into the Church in the summer of 1583. Soon after, he went to France to study for the priesthood.

A year after his ordination, Father Edmund Gennings returned to England to begin his ministry with a friend, Father Polydore Plasden, a native of London. Edmund went to Lichfield to see his fam-ily, in hopes of evangelizing them. He found that all his family had died, except for his youngest brother, John, who was living in London.

When Edmund finally found John and told him that he was a Catholic priest, John was disappointed and afraid. Edmund was able to calm his brother before they parted, promising that he would return to London in about a month so that they could talk more.

Edmund rejoined Polydore on his way back to London. The two decided to go to the house of a schoolmaster, Swithun Wells, to rest for the night and have Mass before parting ways again. (Swithun was beloved among Catholics for hiding priests and hosting secret Masses.) It was at the end of the Octave of All Saints (no longer celebrated on the Church calendar).

Swithun had to leave on business in the morning, but his wife stayed and welcomed at least six more guests to the Mass. They used a room on the second floor, hoping to avoid detection from the outside. But just as the prayers for the Consecration began, a huge crash was heard below as soldiers burst through the front door. John Mason, a layman, rushed to the room’s door to stop the intruders. (Once Consecration begins at Mass, it is required to proceed to the end, so that the Blessed Sacrament will not be desecrated.)

When he opened the door, Mason saw the infamous Richard Topcliffe, the “priest hunter” for the Queen. Mason leaped at Topcliffe, and the two tumbled down the stairs, severely injuring Topcliffe’s head. Topcliffe regained his footing and rallied his soldiers behind him. Before he could reach the room, Father Polydore called out to them. They would peacefully surrender, he said, if Topcliffe would let them finish Mass. Perhaps because he was so injured, Topcliffe agreed.

Once the Mass was finished, the Catholics allowed the soldiers to take them away. When Swithun returned from business, he went to the prison to demand that they release his wife. They refused to let her free and sentenced him to hanging.

For nearly a month, the captured Catholics endured terrible conditions in prison, severe torture and trials without justice. Father Polydore and three other men were sent to an official execution site.

On December 10, 1591, Father Edmund and Swithun Wells were taken to gallows that were built in front of Swithun’s house, as a warning to any Catholic sympathizers. Father Edmund quoted the last words of St. Andrew the Apostle, as he was taken to the gallows and the noose was put around his neck. Topcliffe was enraged by Edmund’s prayer. He demanded that Edmund repent and recant his Catholic faith. Instead, Father Edmund professed all the more his joy in being a Catholic priest and in choosing to obey God rather than man. This infuriated Topcliffe.

Before Edmund could finish praying the Our Father, he made the hangman kick the ladder beneath Edmund’s feet. Then in seconds, Topcliffe cut the rope with his sword, so that Edmund would be fully conscious as he was disemboweled and his heart was ripped from his chest. In agony, Edmund’s last words were, “St. Gregory, pray for me.” On hearing Edmund’s prayer, his executioner called him an “egregious Papist.”

When his brother, John, first heard of Edmund’s death, John was relieved that his brother could not persuade him to become Catholic. However, 10 days later he had a change of heart, repented and converted. He became a Franciscan priest, helping to restore the Franciscan Order in England. He wrote Edmund’s biography in 1614.

St. Edmund Gennings is among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Several of those who attended his last Mass are also saints and blesseds. He has no official patronage. His feast day is December 10.

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