One hundred years ago Father Thomas Byles was journeying to New York City aboard the RMS Titanic to say the Mass at his brother William’s wedding.
Born on February 26, 1870, he was the eldest of seven children of a Congregationalist minister. While attending Oxford, from which he graduated in 1894, he converted to Catholicism. Ordained a priest in 1902, he was assigned to be the parish priest at Saint Helen’s in Ongar, Essex in 1905. The parish was poor and had few parishioners, but Father Byles was devoted to them and labored mightily for them until 1912 when he left to answer the call of his brother to celebrate his marriage.
Father Byles did not view his trip on the Titanic as a vacation from his priestly duties. He spent Saturday April 13, hearing confessions, and on Sunday April 14, he said two masses for the second and third class passengers.
When the Titanic struck the iceberg, Father Byles was walking on the upper deck reading his breviary. He immediately sprang into action. He assisted many third class passengers up to the boat deck and onto the life boats. He twice refused to go aboard life boats himself. As the ship was sinking he said the rosary and heard confessions. Near the end he gave absolution to more than a hundred passengers trapped on the stern of the ship after all the lifeboats had been launched.
Two other Catholic priests were also aboard the Titanic, both as second class passengers.
Father Juozas Montvila was a 27 year old priest from Lithuania fleeing Tsarist oppression. He had been ministering to Ukrainian Catholics and he had been forbidden to do so any longer by the Tsarist regime that was attempting to force Eastern Rite Catholics into the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Montvila planned to be a priest for the numerous Ukrainian Catholics immigrants in the United States.
Father Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz was a 41 year old Catholic priest from Germany. He was on his way to join the faculty at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Like Father Byles, Fathers Montvila and Peruschitz went among the passengers, praying with all, Catholic and non-Catholic, and granting absolution. Also like Father Byles they were offered seats in the lifeboats and declined them, realizing that the place for a priest was on board the Titanic with those who were about to die.
The bodies of the three priests were never recovered. The location of their souls however, I am certain, is in Heaven. God was well served by His three priests that dark night one hundred years ago.