Among the unsung heros of the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago this month, was a parish priest from Essex. Joanna Moorhead finds out more.
There’s a moment in the movie Titanic, as Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio are desperately struggling across the deck in the final moments before the ship sinks, when the camera pans to a priest who is standing with a group of passengers reciting the Hail Mary. A few minutes later we see him again: this time, he’s quoting from the Book of the Apocalypse.
Which, according to historian Fr Stewart Foster, is ridiculous. ‘There’s no way a Catholic priest would be quoting from the Book of the Apocalypse as a ship was sinking,’ he says. ‘He’d be ministering to his flock, hearing confessions and giving a general absolution.’
And that, he says, is exactly what the Catholic priest the character is based on – Father Thomas Byles – was doing on the night of April 14-15 2012. ‘As the Titanic sank, Father Byles was seen consoling the steerage class passengers, talking to them and praying the Rosary with them,’ says Fr Foster. ‘Most of them were Italian or Irish, and since he’d studied in Rome, he spoke Italian.
‘Several eyewitness accounts mention, too, that Fr Byles refused a place in a lifeboat – and not just once, but on two separate occasions.’
All of which explains, says Fr Foster, why Pope Pius X later told William Byles that his brother had been ‘a martyr for the Church’. ‘The Pope gave him that accolade because he could have had his life saved but he refused – he wanted to remain with the people until the end,’ says Fr Foster.
At the time the Titanic struck the iceberg Fr Byles was reciting his office on the upper deck
Fr Byles wasn’t the only Catholic priest on board the Titanic – there were two others, a Lithuanian and an Austrian, as well as an Irish seminarian called Fr Francis Browne who disembarked in Ireland (see box) – but Fr Byles is the one who emerged as the religious hero of the hour. According to Fr Foster, the diocesan archivist for Brentwood diocese, by an eerie coincidence Fr Byles preached, at his final Mass on the morning before the ship sank, about ‘spiritual shipwreck’.
‘He was definitely an inspirational character,’ says Fr Foster. ‘His story is moving, and it shows what a brave and devout man he was.’
Fr Byles’s body was never found; but the place where he is best-remembered is in his parish, St Helen’s in Ongar, Essex. ‘We’ve never forgotten him here,’ says Lesley Boyall, the pastoral assistant. ‘People come from all over the world to hear more about his story.’
The church’s main memorial to Fr Byles is a stained glass window featuring St Patrick, Christ the Good Shepherd, and St Thomas Aquinas. Words inscribed into one of the panes recall his ‘heroic death in the disaster of SS Titanic earnestly devoting his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers’.
Fr Byles was born in Staffordshire in 1870, the eldest of seven children, and christened with the name Roussel in honour of his family’s French connections. His father, the Rev Alfred Holden Byles, was a well-known Congregationalist minister at the time, but during his undergraduate years at Oxford University Roussel began to break away from the religion of his youth and was received into the Church of England. Some time afterwards his brother, William, was received into the Catholic Church – and around that time, it seems that Roussel also began to feel drawn to Catholicism.
In 1894 he became a Catholic and took a new name, Thomas, after St Thomas Aquinas, and after a few years spent teaching (including a spell as tutor to a German prince) he went to Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1902 and became one of the founding members of the Catholic Missionary Society, a group dedicated to the conversion of English Protestants to the Catholic Church. The following year he was appointed parish priest of St Helen’s, and moved to Essex.
It was the engagement of Fr Byles’s brother William that led him to board the ill-fated Titanic. William had gone to live in New York to run a business, and had fallen in love with a woman from Brooklyn. When the couple decided to marry, they asked Fr Byles over to the US to conduct the ceremony.
On April 10, 1912 Fr Byles said farewell to his parishioners and got the train from Essex to London, and then journeyed on from there to Southampton. He had bought a second-class ticket, priced £13, for his cabin aboard the Titanic, and he took with him a portable altar and accessories so that he could say Mass during the trip, an arrangement the ship’s captain had approved.
Twice he was offered a seat in a lifeboat and twice he refused; and after the final lifeboat had left he led a recitation of the rosary for those who had not been able to board any of the boats.
According to eyewitness accounts, at the time the Titanic struck the iceberg Fr Byles was reciting his office on the upper deck. When the seriousness of what had happened became clear, he went below decks to help load the third class passengers into the lifeboats; later, as the situation became ever more acute, he heard confessions and gave a general absolution. Twice he was offered a seat in a lifeboat and twice he refused; and after the final lifeboat had left he led a recitation of the rosary for those who had not been able to board any of the boats.
Several passengers later testified to Fr Byles’s bravery. One, Helen Mary Mocklare, who had been a third class passenger, described how ‘a few…became very excited and then the priest again raised his hand and instantly they were calm once more. The passengers were immediately impressed by the absolute self-control of the priest.’ Another woman who got off the ship, Bertha Moran, said later that Fr Byles had ‘whispered words of comfort and encouragement’ to women and children while helping them climb into the lifeboats.
In New York a few days later, William Byles and his fiancée Isabelle, who like the other relatives had heard of the ship’s sinking, anxiously awaited the arrival of the SS Carparthia, which had picked up the survivors, hoping against hope that Thomas would be among them. When it was clear that he was not, they decided to go ahead with their wedding as planned – but as soon as the service was over they changed out of their bridal clothes and put on mourning clothes instead, and a requiem Mass was said for Fr Byles.
Meanwhile a few days later in Ongar, parishioners packed St Helen’s for a funeral Mass. And this month, a century on, the people of his one-time parish will gather again to honour his memory, and to pray for his soul.
The photographer-priest aboard Titanic
In 1985 a Jesuit priest, clearing out a basement in the provincial house, discovered a large black trunk – and inside he discovered a huge collection of photographs. The pictures chronicled many people and many places, and had been taken across many years – but the most extraordinary images of all were of the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
The pictures were the work of an Irish Jesuit called Fr Francis Browne, who was already a keen photographer when he was ordained a priest in 1898. Knowing how much he would value the chance to take pictures on board the world’s first unsinkable ship, his uncle Bishop Robert Browne of Cloyne bought him a ticket for the Titanic – but only for the first leg of the voyage, from Southampton to Cobh in Ireland via Cherbourg.
The then Mr Browne (he was not ordained a priest until 1915) took photographs throughout his days on the Titanic: pictures of his cabin, of the decks, views from the decks as the ship left its harbours in England and France, and views of other ships as they passed by. In one picture taken at Waterloo Station on his way to board the ship, he captured first class passenger William Waldorf Astor, who would be lost in the disaster.
Fr Browne went on to be a keen photographer throughout his life. After his death in 1960 his work lay undiscovered for many years, but it is now preserved in an archive and some art historians believe he is one of the finest photographers of 20th century Ireland.