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:
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:
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.
Another survivor spoke of how Father Byles was a leader in caring for those left behind.
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:
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the following:
The following account of the Funeral Service held at Ongar Church appeared in the Essex Chronicle on May 2, 1912:
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
Shanahan, Msgr. D. "Fr. Thomas R.D. Byles, Parish
Priest of Ongar and Hero of the Titanic." Essex
Recusant 17 (April 1975): 49.
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.