On Monday 15 April 1912 the RMS Titanic sank in the deep waters of the North Atlantic taking with her more than 1,500 lives. Among the victims there is the unsung hero Father Thomas Byles.
As history goes Father Thomas Roussel Byles was among the 2,207 passengers that were on board the RMS Titanic. The 42-year-old priest boarded the ship on April 10, 1912, which was Easter Wednesday, heading towards the United States to officiate the wedding of his brother William and his girlfriend Isabel Katherine Russell, the week after the new ship was to dock in Manhattan. However, and as the saying goes, man proposes, God disposes. Hardly did it enter in Father Thomas’ mind that his voyage on the Titanic would have been for him a great opportunity to give his young life to Christ, thus living literally Jesus’ words: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
It was prayer that greatly inspired and motivated Father Byles to give his life for God’s children on that terrible night of April 14 1912 when the Titanic struck the iceberg. According to eyewitnesses, when those bottom compartments were torn open, flooding the ship with icy-cold sea water, Father Thomas was praying the breviary on the upper deck. Instinctively he ran to the rescue of the poorest passengers who were in the steerage. Speaking to the New York Herald, Ellen Mockler, a 23-year-old from Caltra, Co. Galway, gave the following witness:
“When the crash came we were thrown from our berths…. Slightly dressed, we prepared to find out what happened. We saw before us, coming down the passageway with hand uplifted, Fr 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…. After I got in the boat …. and we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses of his prayers”.
Mockler’s account was substantiated by Agnes McCoy’s testimony, from Granard, Co. Longford, who boarded the Titanic with her brother and sister to Brooklyn. She said:
“I saw Fr Byles when he spoke to us in the steerage; and there was a German priest with him there. I did not see Fr Byles again until we were told to come up and get into the boat. He was reading out of a book and did not pay any attention. He thought, as the rest of us did, that there wasn’t really any danger. Then I saw him put the book in his pocket and hurry around to help women into the boats. We were among the first to get away and I didn’t see him any more. I learn from several passengers that Fr Byles and another priest stayed with the people after the last boat had gone, and that a big crowd, a hundred maybe, knelt about him. They were Catholics, Protestants and Jewish people who were kneeling there. Fr Byles told them to prepare to meet God, and recited the rosary. The others answered him. Fr Byles and the other priest were still standing there praying when the water came over the deck”.
People must surely recognized Father Thomas Byles who, with another German Benedictine priest, Father Josef Peruschitz, celebrated low Sunday Mass for the Second Sunday of Easter, nowadays commonly known as Divine Mercy Sunday. The attendees of this Mass were the second-class passengers in the lounge followed by the third-class passengers. Interesting is the witness left by another survivor of the tragedy, Charlotte Collyer from Bishopstoke, Southampton, who, while recalling the horror of the night said she saw Fr Byles helping the most vulnerable ones as the unsinkable Titanic was sinking.
“On the boat deck that I had just left perhaps fifty men had come together. In the midst of them was a tall figure. This man had climbed upon a chain or a coil of rope so that he was raised far above the rest, his hands were stretched out as if he were pronouncing a blessing. During the day, a priest, a certain Father Byles, had held services in the second cabin saloon and I think it must have been he who stood there leading those doomed men in prayer”.
On April 14 Father Byles delivered a sermon which had as a theme: “Our prayers and the sacraments of the Church are spiritual lifeboats taking us back to God” in English and French whereas Father Peruschitz delivered the homily in German and Hungarian. In their homilies both priests stressed on the necessity to have a “lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck”.
Father Byles’ was the first one to live what he preached on Sunday morning. According to Mocklare, as the disaster was going on, instead of heeding to a sailor’s advice who “warned [him] of his danger and begged him to board a boat, Father Byles refused”. For the second time, “the same seaman spoke to him again, and he seemed anxious to help him, but he refused again”. For Father Thomas, Jesus’ personal calling to give his life for the brethren brightened any fears he might have had in that tragic night. In the midst of the chaos of the tragedy Father Byles must have heard one music in his spiritual ears, Christ’s words: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Rather than fleeing, thus opting to be “a hireling” who leaves the sheep at the mercy of the murderous wolf (see John 10: 12-13), Father Byles decisively placed his life at the service of others till the very end, like Jesus did on the cross. Keeping clear in his mind the urgency of saving as many people as possible from the physical and spiritual shipwreck, according to Mocklare, Father Byles “was active in getting the steerage passengers up to the boat deck and assisting women and children to the lifeboats”. In her account to the New York papers, Mocklare made it clear that “of the two clergymen, he was the leader not only in rendering material aid to the frightened emigrants, but in keeping the religious aspect of the terrible occasion to the fore”.
The sinking of the RMS Titanic certainly uncovered an outstanding hero as well as a living commentary of the Divine Mercy message, the brave example of Father Thomas Byles. This extraordinary priest of Christ boldly lived what Jesus said to St Faustina in entry 742 of her Diary:
My daughter, if I demand through you that people revere My mercy, you should be the first to distinguish yourself by this confidence in My mercy. I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it. I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first-by deed, the second-by word, the third-by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy. Yes, the first Sunday after Easter is the Feast of Mercy, but there must also be acts of mercy, and I demand the worship of My mercy through the solemn celebration of the Feast and through the veneration of the image which is painted. By means of this image I shall grant many graces to souls. It is to be a reminder of the demands of My mercy, because even the strongest faith is of no avail without works.
Father Graham Smith, the present pastor of St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Ongar, the parish which Father Byles shepherded for eight years, with the support of Bishop Alan Williams of the Diocese of Brentwood, is taking care of the diocesan process of the cause towards sainthood of Father Byles. He said: “The more I learn about him, the more I think of him as a saint. There has to be that devotion to him. Because he died on the Titanic, I think a lot of people will be interested in his story”.
Here is the prayer for the Beatification of Father Thomas Byles:
God, our Father, protector of those in peril, you called your priest, Father Thomas Byles, to provide spiritual lifeboats for the souls of those in need by his pastoral care. Through the example of his life and virtue, may we follow your Son, Jesus Christ, more closely, fulfilling his commandment of self-sacrifice, charity and building up his body which is the Church. Let the inspiration of your servant prompt us to greater confidence in your mercy and love for us. We humbly ask that you glorify your servant Father Thomas Byles on earth according to the design of your holy will. Through his intercession, grant the favor I now present (here make your request). Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father …
Those who obtain graces through the intercession of Father Thomas Byles kindly report to
Father Graham Smith, 87 High St., Ongar, Essex, CM5 9 DX England or email@example.com
It is right and just that Father Thomas Byles be beatified since his shining example of holiness reminds us that Christ’s words that anyone who offers his life for others is possible even today.