By Bernard S McDonagh
Was reciting the Rosary with doomed passengers as liner sank
“There was a wedding this morning that was not all joy, at St. Paul’s church, Congress and Court St., Brooklyn when William E Byles was married to Isabelle C Russell, both from Pacific Street. The wedding was to have been been performed by the bridegroom’s brother, Rev. Thomas Roussel Byles, but the latter was one of the victims of the Titanic disaster, and from all accounts, one of the heroes of that awful calamity.”
Thus ran a news report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, on Saturday, 20 April, 1912, less than a week after the sinking of the Titanic, and we here relate the remarkable story of the priest mentioned, who went down with more than 1,500 other victims aboard the ill fated liner.
On her maiden voyage, Titanic was the largest ship in the world, having been completed 110 years ago, in 1911, at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, just two years after the work first began. She was one of three Olympic class liners operated by the White Star Line and carried 2,200 on board, 1,316 of them passengers and close to 900 crew.
The ship offered the last word in comfort for those who could afford it, and on that maiden voyage, carried not only more than 1,000 emigrants from Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere, in search of a new life in American, but also some of the earth’s richest people, who enjoyed the onboard gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries, restaurants and more.
Curiously, despite all the luxury, in reality, The Titanic had far too few lifeboats for those aboard, with their capacity less than 1,200. This was to be a major contributory factor to such loss of life when the liner struck the iceberg. Although evidence of this isn’t to be found, it is often said that those who designed the ship and its owners considered it almost unsinkable, but the half-capacity in lifeboats seemed indicative of over-confidence.
It was one of the reasons why 1,503 people of the 2,224 who were aboard The Titanic lost their lives in the icy Atlantic ocean on that fateful date, 14 April, 1912. The famous aboard the ocean on that maiden voyage included one of the world’s richest men, John Jacob Astor IV and several other similarly famous personalities.
But not too many aboard, nor elsewhere, knew anything about the quiet-spoken man in clerical garb, 42 years old Fr Thomas Byles, a Catholic priest, whose heroic behaviour when the gigantic ship was about to sink, have long been seen by some who knew him, or heard it it, as behaviour meriting his being placed on the path to becoming a saint.
In fact, six years ago, Rev. Graham Smith, a priest in charge of the parish of St. Helen’s in Ongar, in England, where Father Byles once served, did set out to commence the cause for his beatification. The extraordinary story of this priest convert if it shows anything, shows how much people of firm faith are capable of doing for others in need of help, even when death stares them in the face.
A CONVERT PRIEST
Born in Leeds, in Yorkshire the eldest son of a Congregational minister, it was while studying theology at Oxford for the Anglican ministry, that Thomas Byles decided he wanted to become a Catholic and he was ordained in Rome in 1902.
He returned to England and became a professor at St. Edmund’s College at Lelvedon, near Colchester, and soon after, he took charge of Ongar parish and showed himself to be a priest who never spared himself, and who was revered and loved by his growing number of parishioners.
He was described as a man with many friends but no enemies, a man well versed in politics and in current affairs. He didn’t enjoy good health but he never spared himself in the parish work or elsewhere, and his strong faith in God underpinned everything.
In 1912, his brother William, who had also become a Catholic, and lived in New York, working in the rubber business. Engaged to Isabel Katherine Russell of Brooklyn, and with the wedding date fixed for Sunday, 21 April 1912, William asked his priest brother to travel over to officiate at his wedding. For that reason only, he was one of Titanic’s second class passengers on that maiden voyage to America in April, 2012. In fact, he was due to travel on a different White Star Line vessel, but then switched to the Titanic.
A priest friend Msgr Edward Watson from Brentwood, visited Fr. Byles two days befere he set sail, on Easter Monday, and they talked about the voyage and the possible dangers, and Msgr Watson recalled afterwards talking to him about the danger of icebergs at that time of year, and as they parted he remembered telling Fr. Byles, “ I hope you’ll come back again”
Fr. Byles boarded the Titanic at Southampton on 10 April, 1912, one of three priests aboard – the other two from Bavaria and from Lithuania. He was the only priest who spoke English, and each day they said Mass for the different groups of passengers.
In a letter written to his parish housekeeper, Fr. Byles described how as they were on their way, although the English channel looked rough, those aboard did not feel it. From the top deck, it was like looking down from a very tall building, he told her. Describing how they would be arriving at Queenstown in Co. Cork next morning, he promised to write to her from New York – a promise he didn’t live to keep.
He spent most of Saturday, 13 April, hearing confessions, and on Sunday all three priests offered Mass, thanks to Fr. Byles’ foresight, as he had brought a portable altar borrowed from Msgr Watson with him. Captain Smith allowed him to say Mass for the second class passengers in their lounge and for the third class passengers afterwards.
A PROPHETIC HOMILY?
Many of the passengers he celebrated Mass for on board were emigrating from Ireland and on the morning of Sunday, 14 April, the records show that his homily that morning was about the “need for a lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck.” The words were to prove singularly prophetic.
Witnesses who survived described how Father Byles was out on the ship’s deck, praying with his breviary shortly before midnight on Sunday, when the ship struck the iceberg. At the time, the liner was 375 miles south of Newfoundland, four days at sea. The glancing collision, buckling hull plates inwards, opened five of the 16 watertight compartments to the sea, and effectively, sealed the fate of the magnificent ocean liner. In the space of just two and a half hours, the doomed ship’s end was near.
IRISH SURVIVORS’ ACCOUNTS
Needless to say, there were many eye-witness accounts from the Titanic afterwards, particularly from the English speaking Irish survivors. Agnes McCoy, an Irish woman, travelling in third class related from her recovery bed in hospital: “When the crash came, we were thrown from our berths. I first saw Father Byles in the steerage. There were many Catholics there and he eased their minds by praying for them, hearing Confessions and giving them his blessing.
I later saw him on the upper deck reading from the priest’s book. A young English survivor told me later that the priest pocketed the book (after the accident), gathered people about him while they knelt and offered up prayers for their salvation. I did not see the final minutes of Fr. Byles,” she said.
Ellen Mary Mockler, an Irish immigrant in third class, said afterwards: “We saw him before us, coming down the passageway with his hand uplifted. ‘Be calm, my good people,’ he said as he went about the steerage giving blessings and absolution. A few around us became very excited and then it was that priest again raised his hand and instantly there was calm once more.
The passengers were immediately impressed by the absolute self-control of the priest. He began recitation of the Rosary, the prayers of all, regardless of creed, were mingled, and all responses ‘Holy Mary’ were loud and strong. Many joined him in prayer, non-Catholics as well, and when last seen, he was reciting the Rosary with them.”
“Father Byles could have been saved, but he would not leave. After I got in the boat, which was the last one, and we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses to his prayers,” she said.
Other accounts described how Fr. Byles stood on the deck as the great ship was going down, with Catholics, Protestants and jews kneeling around him in the water, as he led them in prayer. Ms. McCoy in her account said that those left on board seemed to be consoled by having a clergyman offering up prayers for their salvation.
SAVED THEIR BROTHER
She and her sister Alice were saved, with they saved their brother also. While the lifeboat was being rowed away, a man swam alongside, their brother and as they tried to pull him in, a sailor struck him on the head with an oar, but one sister caught him, as the other dragged their brother onto the boat.
William Byles, on 17 April, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle how he had first been told by White Star Line officials on Monday afternoon that all aboard the Titanic had been taken off and transferred to other steamers. He and his brothers were at first reassured, but then they discovered that many had drowned, and learned the worst.
He also commented that he believed the Titanic was going at top speed when she hit the iceberg and foundered, as when he had travelled on a liner not too long before, they were “going through fog thick enough to cut with a knife”, and were still going very fast.
In a letter to his new mother-in-law days after the accident, he wrote: “Roussel appeared on deck after the accident, in full clothes, moving about among the crowd, giving absolution (without confessions) and starting all the Catholics on the Rosary. One girls said sailors wanted to put him into a lifeboat, but he refused, and went on with his duty. People from all decks, first, second and third, took part in his ministrations….”
Fr. Thomas Roussel Byles was a priest had a clear vision of what was the right thing to do at all times and his final acts of selflessness on the Titanic were the ultimate demonstration of that faith.
When Katherine and William Byles travelled to Romes one time later, and had a private audience with Pope St. Pius X, they described how the Pope had declared the dead priest as “a martyr for the Church”. Thus it is that a plaque on the wall of the British church where he once ministered, in asking for prayers for him says, after describing how he was on the Titanic:
“In the midst of that midnight horror of April 14, 1912, he twice refused the offered safety of a lifeboat, choosing rather to comfort the Catholics and other Christians with the supreme consolation of the faith, and so to die with them…”
And so, in 2021, the BBC was told by Fr. Graham Smith who introduced Fr. Byles’ cause in 2015 that he was an “extraordinary man who gave his life for others. We hope people worldwide will pray to him, when in need, and if two miracles are attributed to him, he can be a candidate for sainthood,” he said.