It has become a recent custom at Westminster Cathedral that in marking the feast day of St John Southworth, the feretory containing the relics of our saint is moved from its usual resting place in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs into the nave of the Cathedral where visitors and worshippers may pray and light candles around the relics.
Father John Southworth was born into a family of Catholics in Lancashire in 1592. His family had been subject to persecution including having to pay heavy fines for not renouncing their faith. John Southworth’s father had himself been imprisoned for harbouring the Jesuit martyr-priest, Father Edmund Campion. Despite those times being very dangerous for Catholics in England and Wales, John Southworth travelled to Douai in France to study for his vocation which would conclude with his own martyrdom.
Following his ordination, Father John returned to England in 1619 and for most of the next 35 years carried out his pastoral duties and was arrested on no less than four occasions. Much of John Southworth’s work was in Westminster which in the middle ages was an area noted for its crime and abject poverty. Despite the reputation of the area and in the face of constant mortal danger, John Southworth served the poor, the ill and the needy in Westminster and Clerkenwell . During the years of the plague, at great personal risk he worked among the infirmed and dying and raised funds for the families of victims.
While John Southworth was released on three occasions of his arrest as a result of the intervention of Henrietta Maria, the French Catholic wife of King Charles 1, he was again detained in 1654. Refusing to renounce his faith and saying instead,
“My faith and obedience to my superiors is all the treason charged against me; nay, I die for Christ’s law, which no human law, by whomsoever made, ought to withstand or contradict… ”
John Southworth was condemned to death at Tyburn despite the pleas of many including those of several foreign ambassadors.
His remains were sent to Douai for burial and then transferred to and hidden in an unmarked grave during the French Revolution. They were discovered in 1927 and returned to England. When he was beatified in 1929, John Southworth’s relics were enshrined at Westminster Cathedral. On October 25 1970, Pope Paul VI canonised John Southworth in company with the other martyrs of England and Wales.
Today, The St John Southworth Fund in carrying on the spirit of it’s patron saint, supports the work of parishes and organisations on a wide range of issues including poverty, old age, infirmity, disability and deprivation in the dioceses of Westminster, Brentwood and Southwark and in the county of Hertfordshire.