Priests of the Titanic

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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.


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  1. Amen! Thank you for posting this. Truly inspiring.
    Thank God for all of our heroic priests who, like these three, serve God and His people in their moment, with what they have, where they are.

    I’m thinking our “ship of state” is now in a bit of trouble–
    I don’t think the sinking of America is a foregone conclusion– but let’s imitate the holy example of these good priests–not rearrange the deck chairs- but do what we can with the gifts we have, where we are

  2. “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.”

    Would he, then, probably be the priest portrayed in this scene from “Titanic” (excuse the poor quality, it was obviously recorded off a TV screen):

    The scene from 1:15 to 1:30 where he recites the words from Revelation, “And there shall be no more death, neither shall there be sorrow or crying, nor shall there be any more pain; for the former world has passed away,” was probably a case of dramatic license, but powerful nonetheless.

  3. anzlyne: Your analogy to the “ship of state” is timely. Obama’s ship of state is sinking. (Don’t let Hillary Clinton steal the White House china this time) Our holy priests are leading and pasturing the souls of the people. The magnificence of our Catholic Church and God’s generosity is astounding and at the same time uplifting. Blessed be God
    Elaine Krewer: I would not have watched nor have I seen this part of the movie, until now.

  4. Don,
    Your abitlty to discover for us these gems of Faith amaze me.
    Just as well your business is flourishing under Obama 😉 otherwise you may not have the time to provide them for us.
    God bless you, mate.

  5. @ Mary De Voe

    Your first comment was good, the second shouldn’t have been posted. Calumny and detraction are sins, you know. We can oppose other people’s political beliefs without repeating false accusations against them. Repeating false accusations made eleven years ago suggests that you have rancor festering in your soul.

    Making such comments on an internet forum which is open to all is not at all helpful to the Holy Catholic Church or to God. Negative perceptions of Catholics would be reinforced by your second comment above if a non-Catholic read it. As a Catholic, I’m always embarrassed when I read this sort of a post from another Catholic, especially one who is a regular poster at a Catholic site.

    It’s also troubling that you said “Obama’s ship of state is sinking” because there are a lot of us on that ship, praying he doesn’t sink it before his term ends. Will there be enough “lifeboats” if the country goes under? His term may not end next January, either. This is a very dangerous time for the country. Pray for the USA.

  6. This was a very interesting article. It’s a shame that the story of the three priests who went down with the Titanic doesn’t seem to have been told very often. I’m 65 and never heard it before. I will tell others. Do you happen to know if any other clergymen went down with the ship? I’m sure I’ll be asked. I know a lot of brave gentlemen stayed onboard.

    My godmother was born that week so she felt very connected to the Titanic. I’m sure she would have told me about the priests if she’d known about them. She was very devout and was raised in a strong ethnic Catholic community in New England, the sort of place where everyone would have talked about the three priests.

  7. I thought this was a very nice article and I posted it to my Facebook page. There has been and continues to be great, holy and honorable priests in our midst. Kind of like when an airplane crashes, out of the thousands of flights that take off each day, the only ones noted are the ones that crash. We must pray for our priests at all times. Many of your articles and responses have to do with “scandals”and many have to do with the “progressive” arms that have infiltrated Holy Mother Church in the last 50 years. Do they not go hand in hand? We need the stories of true and faithful leaders such as these young priests. Thank You!

  8. Do you happen to know if any other clergymen went down with the ship? I’m sure I’ll be asked.

    If I can take the liberty of answering… There’s a great website out there call the Encyclopedia Titanica which has biographies of all the passengers and crew. Taking a look, there were five Protestant clergy on board, in addition to the three Catholic priests, all of whom went down with the ship:

    Each has a brief bio on the site.

  9. “We need the stories of true and faithful leaders such as these young priests. Thank You!”

    Thank you for your kind words Jeanne. Priests, by definition, do not blow their own trumpets, so I do it for them!

  10. Katheryn van N.:Thank God for generous and holy Catholic priests. As Fathers Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz, Father Juozas Montvila, and Father Thomas Byles blessed the iceberg strewn waters of the North Atlantic turning the sea into a giant baptismal font, those who went down faced hell and rose again and ascended into heaven. The Catholic Sacrament of Baptism releases man’s soul from each and every sin. I must confess I felt envy for those people in the stern of the Titanic who received absolution and faced their imminent death knowing that God loved them through His holy priests Fathers Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz, Father Juozas Montvila, and Father Thomas Byles who dispensed the grace of the Sacraments. In the not so long ago, passengers in ships, planes, trains and other conveyances were numbered by their soul. There were 2,200 souls aboard the Titanic. 1500 souls were absolved and saved. 707 souls were brought to shore. This is the first time I have heard good news about the Titanic. No wonder the British are taking a poll on how good George Washington was.

  11. Thank you Mr. McClarey for your inspiring article! More people should know about these three really heroic priests.
    The story of Father Thomas Byles inspired a young, Catholic, brother and sister team to create Titanic Heroes. Cady (14) and Benjamin (12) Crosby researched the story of Father Byles and wrote a book about him and his heroism on Titanic. They are dedicated to telling his story at
    Cady and Benjamin donated a wreath to Father Byles for the Coast Guard’s annual memorial drop over the site of the sinking

  12. There’s yet one historical inaccuracy regarding Fr Montvila. Fr Juozas came from a Lithuanian speaking family from a borderland between what are contemporary Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. His first pastorate was in village Lipki near Awgustow, a Belarusian speaking parish consisting predominantly of the former Byzantine Catholic Belarusians forced into Orthodox Russian church after 1875. After being forced into exile, Fr Juozas intended to work as a Roman rite priest in American serving Lithuanian speaking faithful.

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