They had unsinkable faith, finds Adam Edwards, on the Titanic’s anniversary
This year, on Maundy Thursday, as the watch before the Altar of Repose ends and we move to the pain and desolation of Good Friday, spare a prayer for the souls of those, who, 110 years ago that day were part of the unfolding tragedy of the sinking of RMS Titanic.
On 10th April 1912 with jubilation, the largest ship afloat set sail from Southampton bound for New York. The estimated 2,224 crew and passengers included some of the wealthiest people from around the world wanting to be a part of this exciting new adventure.
Following stops in Cherbourg and Queenstown she headed west for New York. At 11.40pm (ship’s time) on 14th April, 375 miles south of Newfoundland, Titanic hit an iceberg. The metal plates along her starboard side buckled, opening up 5 of her 16 watertight compartments to the ravages of the sea; she had been designed to survive the flooding of 4 of these compartments. The evacuation of the ship began. At 2:20am, the ship broke apart with 1,000 still aboard and just under 2 hours later she sank. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew, 1,500 died that night. It remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of a cruise ship and still captures our imagination 110 years later.
A number of priests are recorded as being passengers on the Titanic and of that number that set out on that fateful voyage from Southampton was Father Thomas Byles, the Roman Catholic priest of St Helen’s church, Chipping Ongar. Fr Byles was born in Leeds, the son of a Congregational minister. He because an Anglican whilst studying at Oxford, and in due course followed his younger brother across the Tiber. He was formed for the priesthood at the Beda College in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood in 1902.
The reason for Fr Byles being aboard the Titanic was supposed to be a joyous one; he was travelling to New York to officiate at the wedding of his younger brother, William.
Fr Byles wrote a letter on 10th April, the day Titanic set sail. The letter, addressed to ‘Miss Field’ was posted when Titanic called into Queenstown. In the letter Byles talks about the timetable that they have and described the size of the ship; and that everything has so far gone to plan, except for the minor annoyance that he has lost his umbrella!
The morning of the disaster was the Octave Day of Easter and Fr Byles celebrated Mass for the 2nd and 3rd class passengers in their respective lounges. The contents of his sermon were recounted by Fr Patrick McKenna in his diary. Fr Byles preached on the need for a spiritual lifeboat in the shape of prayer and the sacraments when we are in danger of spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation. These words feel as fresh to us now as there were 110 years ago, and it was prophetic of him as just a few hours later, he would be administering the sacraments and leading people in prayer as a physical shipwreck happened.
As Titanic hit the iceberg, Fr Byles was on the upper deck, praying with his breviary. As the desperate attempts at evacuation started, Fr Byles gave much help and assistance to the 3rd-Class passengers, helping them into the lifeboats where possible. It is recalled that he was twice offered a place in a lifeboat himself but refused. His brother, William, in an article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, said that Fr Byles had a duty, as a priest, to stay to the last and that he knew his duty.
Towards the end, practical assistance turned to spiritual assistance and he prayed with and for fellow passengers and prepared them for their death. His prayers included the rosary and passengers, Catholics, Protestants and Jews alike according to witnesses, gathered around him. It is this praying with people gathered round him that is portrayed in the 1997 film, Titanic – one of three film portrayals of Fr Byles. During this time, he also heard confessions, gave absolution and blessings. After all the lifeboats had been launched, there were 100 passengers trapped on the stern of the ship, awaiting their watery fate – to these passengers Fr Byles gave absolution. The strains of the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ were also heard being sung. Fr McKenna described him in this final act as a ‘victim to duty and conscience’.
It is not known if Fr Byles’ body was ever recovered from the North Atlantic, and if it was then it was never identified. In the sermon at his Requiem Mass Fr Byles was described as a man of “great learning and great zeal, who possessed a kindly love for the poor and a spirit of great humility”. Fr Byles’ brother and his wife later travelled to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius X, who described Byles as a ‘martyr for the Church’ and a stained glass window was installed in St Helen’s Chipping Ongar in his memory. The cause for his Beatification was opened in April 2015.
As we approach the 110th anniversary of this tragedy, we make this prayer that appeared in an article about Byles in the Church Progress: “To his soul and to the souls of all who went down with him in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic on that memorable early morning may God grant eternal rest.”
Francis Browne was an Irish Jesuit who was undergoing formation when he was given a ticket as a present from his uncle to take part in Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton to Queenstown. During his short stay on the ship he took dozens of photos of life on board Titanic, which are a wonderful record, including the last known photographs of the Captain Edward J Smith. During his time onboard he was befriended by an American millionaire couple. They offered to pay his way to New York in return for Browne spending the voyage in their company. Browne telegraphed his Superior, requesting permission, but the reply was unambiguous: “GET OFF THAT SHIP- PROVINCIAL”. Browne duly disembarked at Queenstown, meaning that we have his photographic record of this remarkable ship. Browne went on to become a decorated military chaplain in World War One as well as a prolific photographer.