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The priest who prayed the rosary and heard Confessions as the Titanic sank

Fr Thomas Byles, who grew up in Lancashire, was described by Pope Pius X as a ‘martyr for the Church’

By on Monday, 16 April 2012

The last photo of the Titanic at Cobh (PA photo)

The last photo of the Titanic at Cobh (PA photo)

Several years ago I used to take Holy Communion to a retired ship’s radio officer who had first gone to sea in 1918. I asked him why he had chosen that particular profession. His answer was immediate: “It was the Titanic – I remember it so well. The Marconi operators remained at their post until the end, and I was inspired by their heroism.” Although by then aged 97, my parishioner spoke about the Titanic as if its sinking had happened just a few years ago. This year, as the centenary is kept of the “unsinkable” liner’s collision with an iceberg in the Atlantic, and as we remember and pray for its 1,500 or more victims, there is another hero of the Titanic who merits our attention: a parish priest from Essex who went down with the ship and whose selfless actions were recalled by some of the survivors of the disaster.

Roussel Davids Byles (he took the name “Thomas” only upon his conversion to Catholicism) was born in Leeds in 1870, the grandson of the founder of The Yorkshire Observer, son of the city’s leading Congregationalist minister and the nephew of a Liberal MP. He was educated at Rossall School, Lancashire, and in 1889 went up to Balliol College, Oxford. Having decided to embrace Anglicanism, rather than the Nonconformity of his childhood, he read Theology with the intention of taking Holy Orders. But in 1892 his younger brother William became a Catholic, an event that greatly influenced his own reception on the feast of Corpus Christi, May 24 1894 (hence the adoption of the name Thomas after St Thomas Aquinas). When he took his examinations in Theology he did so as a Catholic – probably becoming the first to do so at Oxford under Anglican examiners.

He then acted as a tutor to a German prince, returning to Yorkshire in 1895 and offering himself to Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster as a student for the priesthood. He was sent to Oscott College, but his health failed. For the next three years he taught at St Edmund’s College, Ware. In 1899 he entered the Beda College in Rome and was ordained as a priest in 1902.

Fr Byles was among the founders of the Catholic Missionary Society, with which he worked from 1903 to 1904. His health broke down again and after a temporary appointment at Barnoldswick, Yorkshire, in December 1904 he took charge of the Catholic mission at Kelvedon in Essex. The following June he was appointed to another small rural parish in Essex, that of St Helen, Ongar. It was from Ongar that Fr Byles left to board the Titanic at Southampton to travel as a second-class passenger on its maiden voyage to New York. His ticket cost £13. He had been asked to officiate at the wedding of his brother William at St Augustine’s Catholic Church, Brooklyn. There were two other Catholic priests on board: Fr Joseph Peruschitz, a Benedictine from Bavaria, and Fr Jouzas Montvilla from Lithuania.

The Titanic sailed from Southampton on Wednesday April 10 1912 and called at Cherbourg and Cobh (then Queenstown), leaving the latter port at 1.30 pm on April 11. April 14 was Low Sunday and Fr Byles celebrated Mass for the second-class and third-class passengers. His sermon was prophetic, for he took as his theme the necessity of having “a lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck”. When at 11.40 pm on that same day the Titanic struck an iceberg 375 miles south of Newfoundland, Fr Byles was on the boat deck reciting the Divine Office. Agnes McCoy, a passenger who was waiting to board a lifeboat, told the New York Sun that earlier that day Fr Byles, in the company of Fr Peruschitz, had spoken to her in the steerage section of the vessel. But she did not see him again until she was led on deck. At that stage Fr Byles was still saying his prayers and seemed not to be paying attention to what was happening, thinking like the rest of the passengers that there was no real danger. When he realised that this was not the case, he went to assist the women and children on to the lifeboats. Indeed, he is known to have helped steerage passengers to the boat deck.

The Tablet carried extracts from the New York Evening World in which survivors told of how Fr Byles had been foremost in “keeping the religious aspect of the terrible occasion to the fore”, by leading the recitation of the rosary as he guided passengers to the lifeboats and refusing to board a lifeboat when urged to do so by a crew member. Geoffrey Marcus, in his account of the disaster, described how some of the first-class passengers continued to play cards in the midst of the chaos. He wrote: “The poor Irish boys and girls from the steerage were more profitably occupied. They were down on their knees and praying… On deck they found an English priest, Fr Byles, moving to and fro among the passengers hearing Confessions and giving absolution.” Fr Persuchitz was with him. Fr Byles urged people to meet God and about 100 people (of all religions) knelt round him on the aft section of the boat deck praying the rosary, and this they were doing as the waters engulfed them in the early hours of April 15.

Agnes McCoy recalled how, when eventually she was taken aboard the rescue vessel Carpathia, she had met an English boy who was the sole survivor from his family and who told her how he had been on deck with the steerage passengers until the ship went down.

He described how Fr Byles and Fr Peruschitz had stayed with the people after the departure of the final lifeboat and that the two priests were still standing there praying as the Titanic went down. But the boy did not see them in the sea. Indeed, as the last lifeboat made its way from the sinking ship, those on board heard Fr Byles’s voice, together with the responses of those kneeling around him. At first it was not known if he had survived, but when the last of the survivors had been landed by the Carpathia it became evident that Fr Byles had perished. William Byles and his bride, Katherine Russell, celebrated a quiet wedding, changing into mourning clothes immediately afterwards. They travelled to London, where they met Winston Churchill, then president of the Board of Trade. In Rome they had an audience with Pope Pius X, who described Fr Byles as having been “a martyr for the Church”.

A Memorial Requiem Mass was celebrated in Westminster Cathedral. But it was in the tiny Catholic church of St Helen that the most moving tributes were paid to a much-loved and much -mourned parish priest. In due course a stained-glass window was placed in the church as a memorial to Fr Byles. It is still to be seen and depicts Christ the Good Shepherd, St Thomas Aquinas (Fr Byles’s patron) and St Patrick (in memory of the many Irish people who perished and to whom Fr Byles had ministered in their last moments).

Fr Stewart Foster is a parish priest in Essex

  • http://www.catholicyouthwork.com Catholic Youth Work

    Interesting article, thank you :)

  • Petelismara

    very interesting and moving

     

  • Guest

    Inspiring :)

  • Ssensjbm

    When are Movie directors coming out to show this to the world, instead of concetrating only on the Love story between ………………and……………

  • 676aldhelmstown710

     I was interested to note that
    included in the passenger list on the Titanic were three Catholic Priests, Fr.
    Thomas Byles from England, Fr.  Juozas
    Montila from Lithuania and Fr.  Joseph
    Peruschitz from Bavaria. All three Priests were offered places in lifeboats
    which they turned down and they stayed on board the Titanic to give spiritual
    comfort and absolution to the desperately frightened passengers and crew. To
    the very end they were serving their fellow men and women and died doing their
    duty.  

    Readers may be interested to know
    that  some thirty one years later also in
    the North Atlantic there was a further example of priests giving their all in a
    book  entitled “ Sea of Glory “.  The book concerns four very ordinary
    Americans,  The Rev. George L Fox, a
    Methodist minister from Vermont, Rabbi Alexander Goode from Indiana whose
    Father was also a Rabbi,  The Rev. Clark
    V Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister from Ohio whose Father was a chaplain in
    the Great War and lastly Fr. John P Washington from Newark, New Jersey. 

    Following Pearl Harbour, when the
    United States entered the Second World War all four priests could, with a clear
    conscience continued with their peace time pastoral support of their existing
    congregations and communities, but for the four Priests this was not an option.
    The priests enlisted as chaplains in the United States Army. The four Chaplains,
    from very different backgrounds and traditions first met at Chaplain School at
    Harvard University, where they soon formed a dynamic working team and became
    good friends, they then passed through army “boot camp “where much interest was
    aroused with the small metal crosses sewn into the lapels of the three
    Christian Chaplains and the two small rectangular metal plates with Hebrew
    writing, “The Tablets of the Law” known to us as the “Ten Commandments “on the
    Rabbi’s lapels.

    In January 1943 all four
    Chaplains together with about 916 other men boarded the troopship Dorchester
    bound for England via Greenland.  Greenland was of strategic importance as it
    was a valuable source of aluminium and there was a possibility that as Denmark
    had already been invaded by the Germans, Danish Greenland might also be
    invaded.

    For many of the young soldiers
    from inland states who had never been on a boat, let alone a ship this was
    their first contact with the sea. As one, the four Chaplains prayed for all and
    gave pastoral support for all on board, Catholic lads made their confessions to
    the Rabbi and ministry crossed peace time boundaries in all directions.

    Shortly before the Dorchester was
    due to make landfall in Greenland she was struck amidships in the engine room,
    by a torpedo from a U boat. All power for the pumps was and lighting was lost.
    In the desperate carnage with frightened, wounded and dying soldiers everywhere,
    many of them could not find their life belts and they were panicking.  As one the four Chaplains brought order into
    chaos, helping the soldiers up on deck, issuing life belts and helping as many
    as they could into lifeboats. Eventually all the lifebelts had been issued,
    then as one the four Chaplains took their lifebelts off and handed them out to
    four soldiers. “Here lad this lifebelt is more your size “, “Take my lifebelt,
    I find it gets in the way”.

     From the relative safety of their lifeboats
    many of the soldiers called out “God bless you all”.

    Having given all practical help possible
    the four Chaplains then stood on the heaving deck of the dying ship with legs
    braced against the icy cold water flooding the ship and with arms linked, they
    were united in Prayer as one. “Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai ,“  “ Our Father which art in Heaven ..”,  “ Out of the depths hear me Lord ”,  “ Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
    sinners now and at the hour of our death”,  “ I commend my Soul unto almighty God”.

    The Dorchester struggled to shrug
    off another wave, failed and plunged beneath the sea. Over 650 men, including
    the four Chaplains went to their watery grave but about 230 men were saved
    along with the four with their lifebelts given them by the four Chaplains.

    Unto almighty God we commend the
    souls of these four Chaplains, our Brothers and should the need arise that we
    also would have their courage.

    Andrew Woodcock

    Readers may be interested to know
    that  some thirty one years later also in
    the North Atlantic there was a further example of priests giving their all in a
    book  entitled “ Sea of Glory “.  The book concerns four very ordinary
    Americans,  The Rev. George L Fox, a
    Methodist minister from Vermont, Rabbi Alexander Goode from Indiana whose
    Father was also a Rabbi,  The Rev. Clark
    V Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister from Ohio whose Father was a chaplain in
    the Great War and lastly Fr. John P Washington from Newark, New Jersey. 

    Following Pearl Harbour, when the
    United States entered the Second World War all four priests could, with a clear
    conscience continued with their peace time pastoral support of their existing
    congregations and communities, but for the four Priests this was not an option.
    The priests enlisted as chaplains in the United States Army. The four Chaplains,
    from very different backgrounds and traditions first met at Chaplain School at
    Harvard University, where they soon formed a dynamic working team and became
    good friends, they then passed through army “boot camp “where much interest was
    aroused with the small metal crosses sewn into the lapels of the three
    Christian Chaplains and the two small rectangular metal plates with Hebrew
    writing, “The Tablets of the Law” known to us as the “Ten Commandments “on the
    Rabbi’s lapels.

    In January 1943 all four
    Chaplains together with about 916 other men boarded the troopship Dorchester
    bound for England via Greenland.  Greenland was of strategic importance as it
    was a valuable source of aluminium and there was a possibility that as Denmark
    had already been invaded by the Germans, Danish Greenland might also be
    invaded.

    For many of the young soldiers
    from inland states who had never been on a boat, let alone a ship this was
    their first contact with the sea. As one, the four Chaplains prayed for all and
    gave pastoral support for all on board, Catholic lads made their confessions to
    the Rabbi and ministry crossed peace time boundaries in all directions.

    Shortly before the Dorchester was
    due to make landfall in Greenland she was struck amidships in the engine room,
    by a torpedo from a U boat. All power for the pumps was and lighting was lost.
    In the desperate carnage with frightened, wounded and dying soldiers everywhere,
    many of them could not find their life belts and they were panicking.  As one the four Chaplains brought order into
    chaos, helping the soldiers up on deck, issuing life belts and helping as many
    as they could into lifeboats. Eventually all the lifebelts had been issued,
    then as one the four Chaplains took their lifebelts off and handed them out to
    four soldiers. “Here lad this lifebelt is more your size “, “Take my lifebelt,
    I find it gets in the way”.

     From the relative safety of their lifeboats
    many of the soldiers called out “God bless you all”.

    Having given all practical help possible
    the four Chaplains then stood on the heaving deck of the dying ship with legs
    braced against the icy cold water flooding the ship and with arms linked, they
    were united in Prayer as one. “Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai ,“  “ Our Father which art in Heaven ..”,  “ Out of the depths hear me Lord ”,  “ Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
    sinners now and at the hour of our death”,  “ I commend my Soul unto almighty God”.

    The Dorchester struggled to shrug
    off another wave, failed and plunged beneath the sea. Over 650 men, including
    the four Chaplains went to their watery grave but about 230 men were saved
    along with the four with their lifebelts given them by the four Chaplains.

    Unto almighty God we commend the
    souls of these four Chaplains, our Brothers and should the need arise that we
    also would have their courage.

    Andrew Woodcock

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cecilia-Skudder/1528052677 Cecilia Skudder

    Love is as love does and love is what this Priest and others showed to their fellow man.

  • Nawnthomas

    actually, in the movie a night to remember with clifton webb, there was  a priest featured who went down to steerage to hear confession, thomas nawn in fredericksburg virginia, usa

  • Amkennedypayen

    This article is so sad and so touching. God bless them all.

  • Christinecasey5

    Yes indeed he sounded like a kind and thoughtful man who was indeed a martyr for the church. Thinking along those lines all the little children abused because Cardinal Brady effectively silenced a child who had come forward to report it were martyred BY the church.

  • baige867

    iloveshopper.com

  • Ro

    Juozas Montvila is the correct name, not Jouzas Montvilla

  • Pingback: Historias de heroísmo de sacerdotes católicos en dos naufragios —> En el Titanic y en la II Guerra Mundial. A través de la historia ha habido infinidad de actos de heroísmo de sacerdotes católicos. La particularidad de estas dos es que prefi