Today, 21 Mar 2012, is the 425th anniversary of the death of Blessed Thomas Pilcher, ( Pilchard / Pritchard / Pylcher) an English diocesan priest and martyr. To answer God’s call to priesthood in his day meant the acceptance of a high probability of martyrdom, and yet Blessed Thomas was willing to answer that call.
Blessed Thomas Pilcher was born around 1557 at Battle in Sussex. He was sufficiently clever to be accepted at Balliol College, Oxford, as a student. Whether the call to priesthood came before he went to university, or whether it came as he studied, sought truth and debated with other scholars is not clear. Thomas completed his Master of Arts degree in 1579 and very soon after this he enrolled in Douai College – the seminary in France that trained English men as priests for the English mission during times of persecution. In 1853 he was ordained and within a few weeks he was back in England ministering to souls.
From the accounts that have come down to us, Thomas seems to have been a very gentle, learned and holy man who had a recognizable squint. Having this squint meant that he was going to have trouble blending in with the crowd and that the officials on the lookout for priests were going to find him easily. It is not surprising then that he was arrested in London after only two years ministry, if that, and exiled.
Thomas was not deterred. The needs of English souls for the sacraments and for the truth gave him the courage to return within months. Back in England by January 1586, this time he seems to have exercised his priestly ministry in more rural areas. He didn’t last long. In early March 1587, at the age of 30, he was caught and arrested in Dorchester for exercising his priesthood. Thomas had a gift of drawing souls gently to Jesus. While he was in prison he led 30 souls to conversion – something the patron of Balliol College, St Catherine of Alexandria, would have greatly rejoiced in.
On the day set down for his execution, Thomas was very roughly dragged to the appointed place. He was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but the rope around his neck broke when they tried to hang him. Instead they stabbed him. Throughout this ordeal, Thomas remained calm, so calm that he even assisted his executioners with the task of drawing out his intestines. With prayers seeking God’s mercy, Thomas yielded up his soul on 21 March 1587. Either Thomas had a sense of humour about his fishy name, or God did, or they both did, because following his death when people invoked his intercession often a pilchard-fishy smell was noticed. This particularly helped a layman four years later, being held in the same prison, to choose death rather than deny his Catholic faith. On 22 Nov 1987 he was beatified with 84 other British martyrs by Blessed Pope John Paul the Great.
Blessed Thomas Pilcher, please pray for us, that we may be as utterly convicted of God’s truth as you were.