Father Thomas Byles

by Father Scott Archer

The Titanic has become a part of the collective consciousness of America and has been the subject of numerous books, movies, and even a hit Broadway musical. If the story of the Titanic had happened in former times it might have been the subject of Greek mythology, the story of man attempting to defy the gods and Poseidon lifting this great Leviathan out of the sea, breaking it in two, and plunging it and its' passengers to the ocean's floor. The sinking of the Titanic is not myth, however, but the tragic story of how over 1500 people lost their lives on a ship everyone believed to be unsinkable. This article concerns just one passenger aboard the Titanic on that fateful voyage; one which Saint Pius X would call a martyr for the Church. His name was Father Thomas Byles.

Father Byles was born at Headingley, Leeds, Yorkshire on February 26, 1870, the eldest of seven children and given the name Roussel Davids Byles (Thomas was the name chosen when he was baptized in the Catholic Church).1 He was raised in a Protestant family in Yorkshire, England, the son of the Reverend Dr. Alfred Holden Byles, a well-known Congregationalist minister, and his wife Louisa Davids.2

Father Byles was educated at Leamington College and Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire between 1885-1889.3 In 1889 he went to Balliol College, Oxford to study mathematics, modern history, and theology. He was also Vice-President of the Arnold Society (a select undergraduate debating society at Balliol). He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894. During his schooling at Rossall, Roussel began to break away from his Congregational roots. He was influenced both by the weakness of the historical position of Nonconformity and their neglect and practical denial of the sacraments. Soon after his arrival at Oxford, he was received into the Church of England. He was quite interested in the writings of the Fathers, apologetics, and ritual. He was also very ascetic, and as such, made a daily meditation and went to "confession" to an Anglican clergyman. Roussel's brother William, however, was the first to cross over into the Catholic Church.

The first sign that Roussel was again searching for the truth was in a letter he sent to his brother William on February 24, 1894. The letter began with a birthday greeting, but it ended with the following short paragraph:

"Do you know I have had some trouble lately? The fact is I find myself unable to recognize the Anglican position. I do not, however, feel myself any more satisfied with the Roman position. I have given up going to Anglican communion, and have postponed my ordination as a deacon."

His search for the truth led him, at long last, into the Catholic Church. On May 23, 1894, he was baptized sub conditione at St. Aloysius Church in Oxford by Father Joseph Martin, S.J. His sponsor was Francis Urqhart of Balliol College.

Thomas Roussel Davids Byles left Oxford after his final examinations. He went to Manresa for a retreat which was conducted by Father E. I. Purbrick, a close friend for the rest of his life. From Manresa he went to Germany to join his Catholic brother, then studying at Tuebingen. In September, his brother went back to England and Thomas went to the Monastery at Beuron for a month or six weeks. While there he accepted the position of tutor to the second son of Prince von Waldburg-Wolfegg-Waldstein.

The next few months were spent visiting religious houses, and in prayer and retirement in Yorkshire. Determining to study for the priesthood he went to Oscott, but found the climate too much for his frail health.4 After a few months he was hired as a professor at St. Edmund's College, Ware, Hertfordshire, a boy's school and Roman Catholic seminary. He continued his own studies while teaching at St. Edmund's.5 For a highly-educated man like Thomas, who had spent five years at Oxford, an English seminary had little to offer in the way of scholarly challenges. In 1899 he went to Rome to study for the priesthood at the Beda College.6 He was ordained in the Church of Saint Apollinaris on June 15, 1902.7 The first few months of his priesthood were spent in Rome. In February of 1903 he went to live in Longcott, Gunnersbury as one of the five founding members of the Catholic Missionary Society, a group dedicated to the conversion of English Protestants to the Catholic Faith. He was then moved to Our Lady Immaculate and the Holy Archangels in Kelvedon for a short time. In 1905 he was assigned to St. Helen's in Ongar, Essex.

This scholar, one-time tutor of the German Prince, an intimate friend of Jowett, member of a highly articulate political family was, for seven years, until his death, in charge of a vast country mission, with a tiny church and very few people.8 Father Byles was humbly devoted to his poor congregation. He was known as a learned man, a good preacher, and a caring priest to his people. He even taught boxing to some young men of Ongar, which was done in a shed behind the church, when they expressed an interest in the sport.9

It was the upcoming wedding of Thomas' brother William which prompted this particular trip abroad. William had moved to New York to run a rubber business and had fallen in love with Katherine Russell of Brooklyn. William had asked Thomas to officiate at the ceremony which would take place at St. Augustine's Catholic Church.

On Easter Monday, just two days before Father Byles set sail, Monsignor Edward Watson, a close friend from Brentwood, was visiting as he packed his things for the journey. Their long conversation that evening ranged from the size of trunk Father Byles should take to the anxieties he had about his parish in Ongar. They spoke much of the Titanic, the voyage, and its safety. It was then that Monsignor Watson remembered and emphasised the danger of icebergs at that season. After the last glass of wine had been drunk, and the goodbyes had been said, Monsignor Watson let these ominous words slip from his mouth, "I hope you'll come back again."10

On April 10, 1912, Father Thomas Byles made the journey from Essex, bound for Southampton. Arriving at Liverpool Street Station, he went to Waterloo Station, and there joined the Boat Train for Southampton. With second class ticket #244310 in hand, which had cost 13, Father Byles boarded the great ship.11

He was able to make arrangements with Captain Smith to have the use of space on the ship in order to say Mass for the passengers of the Titanic since he had brought a portable altar stone and all accessories, borrowed from Monsignor Watson.12

A few hours later, while the Titanic lay at anchor at Cherbourg, he wrote to his housekeeper Miss Field back at his parish in Ongar, Essex:

"Everything so far has gone very well, except that I have somehow managed to lose my umbrella. I first missed it getting out of the train at Southampton, but am inclined to think that I left it at Liverpool St. We arrived at Southampton in the boat train at 11.30 and started at 12 o'clock very punctually. At one we had lunch. We were then still in Southampton Water, but when we came out of lunch we were between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

"Before coming out of supper we had stopped at Cherbourg, and the tender was just coming alongside with passengers. The tender is a good sized boat of 1260 tons, but by the side of the Titanic she looks as though with a good crane we could lift her out of the water and lay her on deck without feeling any inconvenience.

"When you look down at the water from the top deck, it is like looking from the roof of a very high building.

"At the time of writing 7.45 we are still stopping at Cherbourg. The English channel was decidedly rough to look at, but we felt it no more in the roughest part than when we were in Southampton Water. I do not much like the throbbing of the screws but that is the only motion we feel...I shall not be able to say mass to-morrow morning, as we shall be just arriving at Queenstown ... I will write as soon as I get to New York..."

He spent most of the day Saturday hearing the confessions of those who wished to avail themselves to this grace. On Sunday morning, April 14, Father Byles offered what would be his last Mass. It was Low Sunday; i.e., the Sunday after Easter. He said Mass first for the second class passengers in their lounge and then for the third class passengers. He preached in English and French on the need for men to have a lifebelt in the shape of prayer and the sacraments to save their souls when in danger of being lost in spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation, just as men require a lifebelt to save themselves when their lives are in danger of being lost in an actual shipwreck.13

Of the very few passengers willing to brave the cold, Father Byles had been reciting the Breviarium Romanum, fully dressed in his priestly garb, while walking back and forth on the upper deck at the moment the Titanic struck the iceberg.14 He acted bravely in his capacity as a spiritual leader of men. Descending to the third class and calming the people, Father Byles gave them his priestly blessing and began to hear confessions; after which, he began the recitation of the Rosary. He then led the third class passengers up to the boat deck and helped load the lifeboats. He gave words of consolation and encouragement to the woman and children as they got into the boats. As the danger became even more apparent, he went about hearing more confessions and giving absolution. By all accounts, Father Byles was twice offered a seat in a lifeboat but refused. After the last lifeboat was gone, he went to the after end of the boat deck and led the recitation of the Rosary for a large group kneeling around him of those who were not able to find room in the boats. Father Byles also exhorted the people to prepare to meet God. As 2:20 a.m. approached, and the stern rose higher and higher out of the sea, Father Byles led the more than one hundred people kneeling before him in the Act of Contrition and gave them general absolution.

Witnesses gave testimony of Father Byles' bravery while the ship was sinking.

"When the crash came we were thrown from our berths ... Slightly dressed, we prepared to find out what had happened. We saw before us, coming down the passageway, with his hand uplifted, Father Byles. We knew him because he had visited us several times on board and celebrated mass for us that very morning. 'Be calm, my good people,' he said, and then he went about the steerage giving absolution and blessings.... A few around us became very excited and then it was that 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. He began the recitation of the rosary. The prayers of all, regardless of creed, were mingled and all the responses, 'Holy Mary,' were loud and strong."15 -- Miss Helen Mary Mocklare, third class passenger.

"Continuing the prayers, he [Father Byles] led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women and children in he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement."16 -- Miss Bertha Moran, third class passenger.

"One sailor ... warned the priest of his danger and begged him to board a boat. Father Byles refused. The same seaman spoke to him again and he seemed anxious to help him, but he refused again. Father Byles could have been saved, but he would not leave while one was left and the sailor's entreaties were not heeded. After I got in the boat, which was the last one to leave, 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. Then they became fainter and fainter, until I could only hear the strains of 'Nearer My God, to Thee' and the screams of the people left behind."17 -- Miss Helen Mary Mocklare, third class passenger.

Another survivor spoke of how Father Byles was a leader in caring for those left behind.

"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 his priest's book of hours. Survivors, especially a young English lad, told me later that he pocketed the book, gathered the men about him and, while they knelt, offered up prayer for their salvation."18 -- Miss Agnes McCoy, third class passenger.

Father Byles died in the sinking. His body was never recovered.19

William and Katherine did not reschedule the planned wedding, but had another priest perform a very simple ceremony. Following the wedding the couple went home, changed into mourning clothes and returned to the church for a memorial Mass. This article appeared in the Evening World:

"Wedding bells, quickly followed by a funeral march, changed on Saturday, what was to have been the happiest day in the lives of Miss Isabel Katherine Russell and W. E. Byles. More than two thousand people were expected to be present. The ceremony was to have been performed in St. Augustine's Church and the Rev. Thomas R. D. Byles of Ongar, Essex County, England, brother of the groom, was to officiate. Miss Russell and Mr. Byles did not give up hope that Father Byles had been saved until every passenger had arrived from the Carpathia. They returned to the Russell residence, No. 119 Pacific Street, and, by telephone and telegram, recalled the numerous invitations. Believing in the superstition, however, that it is bad luck to postpone a wedding, the ceremony was performed Saturday by the Rev. Wm F. McGinnis, D. D., a life-long friend of the bride, in St. Paul's Church. Instead of the usual reception and wedding breakfast following, the bridal party hastened home, and, donning garments of mourning, returned to the church, where the Rev. Father W. Flannery, rector, performed a requiem mass for the late Father Byles."

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the following:

"There was a wedding this morning that was not all joy, at St. Paul's Church, Congress and Court streets. William E. Byles, of 124 Pacific street, was married to Isabelle C. Russell, of 119 Pacific street, by the Rev. Dr. William F. McGinnis. The wedding was to have been performed by the bridegroom's brother, the Rev. Thomas R. D. Byles, but the latter was one of the victims of the Titanic disaster, and from all accounts one of the heroes of the awful calamity. It is said that he administered the last rites to all that asked his services, and helped also to save many people from death.

"After the low nuptial mass today, a solemn high requiem mass was celebrated for the lost priest."

The following account of the Funeral Service held at Ongar Church appeared in the Essex Chronicle on May 2, 1912:

"Ever since the news of the disaster to the Titanic the congregation at St. Helen's Catholic Church, Ongar, have been concerned in paying fitting tributes to the memory of their much-loved pastor. As soon as it was beyond doubt that Father Byles was amongst those who had perished, the sorrowful tidings were announced by the tolling of the church bell, and since then Masses have been said almost continually for the repose of his soul. At the Mass on the Sunday following an address was given by Father Connor, of St. Andrew's Institute, Barnet, in which he spoke of the sterling qualities of character as shown forth in their rector's life. His career was a remarkable one, and God seemed to have marked him out in an extraordinary way for His own divine purposes. Finally, he had been the rescuer of innumerable souls on a storm tossed ocean...

"The Priest-in-charge of the Ongar Catholic Church attended the solemn requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral in the name of the bereaved mission. Nevertheless, it seemed that the love and affectionate remembrance of the little flock for their shepherd could not be satisfied except by tokens, both public and private, at the very heart of the good Priest's activities - his own most dearly loved church. Accordingly on Sunday evening last a special service was arranged to fulfill these obligations. The Sisters of Charity and the boys under their charge at St. Charles' School, Brentwood, together with their chaplain, Mgr. Watson, journeyed to Ongar to assist at these devotions...

"On Monday morning a Requiem Mass was held at the church and there was a very large congregation... Mgr. Watson addressed the clergy and laity present. He referred to St. Paul, and the fact that though St. Paul suffered from physical ailments and was only small in stature, yet he was the great Apostle of the Gentiles. In like manner the late Father Byles, although of a humble exterior, was a man of great learning, great zeal, possessed a kindly love for the poor and a spirit of great humility."

On a trip later that year, Katherine and William traveled to Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Saint Pius X, who said that Father Byles was a martyr for the Church.20

The name "Titanic" will forever live in our hearts and memories as a symbol of tragedy because of the dramatic sinking of the great liner and the enormous loss of life, but remember there is another legacy, as reported in the survivors' descriptions of the final hours of the great ship. It is the legacy of the men and women who stayed behind.

It is the stuff of Greek tragedies, of the classical myths, of heroes and villains, scoundrels and good Samaritans.

The hero element of the classical myths is very important because it is through the hero that the audience learned how to behave heroically. Or, if the hero made a mistake, as Odysseus did when he angered Poseidon, then he still overcame the punishment in heroic fashion. All of these stories were meant to teach people what was important in life.

The Titanic is just such a story.

In the survivors' accountings there are examples of humanity at its basest form as well as examples of deeds that we, as Christians and good people, hold up as exemplary; actions which declare that we are above the beasts because we are capable of moral decisions; behavior which dignified not only the man, but that man's whole race. It provided evidence of the dignity and honor of which we are capable.

Father Byles was part of that legacy, a hero in a hopeless situation.

Copyright 1999-2013 Father Scott Archer.
This article made not be copied, transferred, stored electronically, nor used in any way.

1 Shanahan, Msgr. D. "Fr. Thomas R.D. Byles, Parish Priest of Ongar and Hero of the Titanic." Essex Recusant 17 (April 1975): 49.
2 Shanahan 49.
3 Shanahan 49.
4 Shanahan 49.
5 Shanahan 49.
6 Notes of Msgr. D. Shanahan on Father Byles: 6.
7 The file of Thomas R.D. Byles, Westminster Diocesan Archives.
8 Shanahan 49-50.
"Aspects of the History of Ongar." The Ongar Millennium History Group (1999): 30.
Watson, Right Rev. Msgr. Edward. "Reminiscences." The Edmundian Volume X, No. 58 (July 1912): 111.
11 Hind, Philip. Thomas Roussel Davids Byles. Encyclopedia Titanica. 1999. <http:www.encyclopedia-titanica.org>.
12 Watson 110.
13 Diary of Father Patrick McKenna.
From an Essex newspaper, 1912, quoted in the notes of Msgr. D. Shanahan: 7.
15 Shanahan 47.
16 Shanahan 47.
17 Shanahan. 47.
18 "Victims Knelt Around Priest as Vessel Sank: Father Byles Had Aided Women in Boats and Then Consoled Those on Board," New York Telegram, April 22, 1912.
19 Hind
20 Hind

Other sources used included the following: Father Byles' file from the Westminster Archdiocesan Archives; Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy by John P. Eaton & Charles Haas; Titanic by Leo Marriott; EXTRA TITANIC: The Story of the Disaster in the Newspapers of the Day, from the Collections of Eric Caren & Steven Goldman. A special thanks to Philip Hind, editor of Encyclopedia Titanica, who provided the initial biographical information.