The ship was sinking. A deck hand urged the priest to get on a lifeboat. He refused. In the last minutes of his life he ministered to dozens of frightened people, hearing jumbled confessions and giving sweeping absolutions. Then the priest led them in the Rosary. Everyone, Catholic, Protestant, and Jew, recited with fervor: “Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…” Then waves swamped the boat deck and washed them all into darkness.
The priest was Father Thomas Byles. His body was never found but survivors remembered his courage and selflessness on that fatal night. How he came to be Catholic, then a Catholic priest, and finally a casualty at sea, is an interesting story.
Conversion and Priesthood
He was born Roussel Davids Byles in England in 1870. His father, Dr. Alfred Holden Byles, was a well known Protestant minister. Three of Alfred’s seven children converted to Catholicism.
Roussel studied mathematics and theology at Oxford. Dissatisfied with the theological shortcomings of his Congregationalist upbringing, he converted to the Church of England. Yet he soon became dissatisfied with Anglicanism, writing his brother William:
“I find myself unable to recognize the Anglican position. I do not, however, feel myself anymore satisfied with the Roman position. I have given up going to Anglican communion, and have postponed my ordination as a deacon.”
Brother William had already converted to Catholicism, and the two had a lively religious correspondence. Roussel converted in 1894, an event of which The Tablet wrote:
“He was to be received into Holy Mother Church and to make his first Communion on the feast day of Corpus Christi, surely an appropriate festival for one who had been led perhaps more by his devotion to the Eucharist than by anything else to the altar where alone the Eucharist has its dwelling.”
In 1899 he went to Rome to study for the priesthood, and was ordained in 1902 as Father Thomas Byles. An intellectual of slight build and frail health, he was assigned to St. Helens, a small rural parish in Essex, England. Many of the parishioners lived miles away from church, and Father Byles would bicycle through the country in search of Catholic houses. The efforts took a toll on him, but Mass attendance at St. Helens increased.
Although Byles taught local boys how to box in a barn behind the Church, he was more of an intellectual athlete, a thinker and a writer. He had a nervous disposition, and could be argumentative. A nearby priest who knew Byles thought so, anyway, but also observed:
“All his work was good, in the judgment of all, whether conference papers, or the ensuing debates, or public controversy. A thorough grasp of facts, exact reasoning, and clear enunciation of conclusions characterized his writing. In a word he was just what one would expect a scholar of Balliol to be.”
No one knew if Father Byles experienced internal rebellion at being placed in the rural outback. He appears to have been committed to St. Helens and his parishioners, expending all his energies for their spiritual welfare. In a letter to another brother, Byles wrote:
“I wish I could impart to you something of the bliss of knowing with certainty what God has revealed for our support and help. It is a happiness that grows more and more every day and which affords a truly marvelous and altogether supernatural support in all temptation, and against all evil. It is however beyond my power to impart this – the most I can do is to pray God to give to all I love this wonderfully great Gift which I have received…”
Father Byles’ brother, William, studied with the Jesuits until he realized he did not have a religious vocation. He relocated to America and became president of a business. In 1912 William wrote his brother to ask him to celebrate a wedding Mass in New York for William and his fiancée. Father Byles agreed, and booked ship transport to New York through White Star Line, a major British shipping firm. When he received his ticket he saw he was booked for the maiden voyage of the sensational new ship, the RMS Titanic.
The “Ship of Dreams”
Transporting people across the ocean was a lucrative business. There were growing numbers of wealthy travelers, and even more immigrants wishing to come to America. There was fierce competition for passengers between shipping lines in England and Germany. The idea for theTitanic grew out of this competition.
Originally, White Star Line intended the Titanic (and sister ship, the Olympic) as a response to arch rival Cunard’s introduction of the Lusitania, the fastest, most elegant ocean liner in the world at that time. Bankrolled by American millionaire J.P. Morgan, White Star Line created plans for a ship whose size, luxury, and modern conveniences would be on a hitherto unimagined scale. In the shipyards of Belfast, Ireland, fifteen thousand men began building the Titanic.
Three years later the largest moving object ever constructed was near completion. An observer described the Titanic as a ship “so monstrous and unthinkable that it towered over the buildings and dwarfed the very mountains by the water…A rudder as big as a giant elm tree, propellers the size of windmills – everything was on a nightmare scale.”
The ship was the length of three football fields, and weighed over 46,000 tons. Three anchors, each weighing 15 tons, were required to slow it. Each link in the anchor chain weighed 175 pounds. The rudder weighed over twenty thousand pounds. Twenty nine boilers, each large enough to house a double decker bus, were fed daily the 5,000 pounds of coal required to move the ship. Dubbed “the monster of the sea,” when fully completed the Titanic was as elegant as she was powerful. The architect, Thomas Andrews, spared no expense to ensure the comfort of the ship’s wealthy customers. A Turkish bath, a squash court, gymnasium, and a special dining room for maids and valets were some of the features. Expansive, winding staircases, ornate imported wood paneling, luxurious carpeting, glass domed ceilings, a telephone system, world class cuisine, and other detailed amenities made first class accommodations on the Titanic equal to that of luxury hotels.
The Titanic’s captain, E.J. Smith, declared: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause the ship to founder…Modern ship-building has gone beyond that.” Noting the ship’s watertight design, an engineering magazine declared that the Titanic “embodied all that judgment and knowledge could devise to make her immune from all disaster.” A seaman spoke for many when he said, “God Himself could not sink this ship.”
Some called the Titanic “a monstrous floating Babylon.” More commonly she was called “the ship of dreams”: for the undreamed of luxury afforded its first class passengers, and for the chances of a new life offered to its third class passengers – mostly immigrants seeking their fortunes in America. The maiden voyage of the Titanic included a cross-section of humanity: millionaires like John Jacob Astor, celebrities, politicians, and hungry immigrants from Ireland, France, Germany, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Croatia, and Syria. Everyone knew they were part of an historic event.
Father Byles boarded the Titanic in Southampton. From his second class lodgings he wrote a letter to his parish housekeeper, Miss Field. After complaining about losing his umbrella, Fr. Byles described the ship:
“There are eight decks above the water line. When you look down at the water from the top deck it is like looking from the roof of a very high building. The English Channel was decidedly rough to look at , but we felt it not more than when we were in Southampton water. I do not much like the throbbing of the screws (the ship’s engine), but that is the only motion we feel …I will write as soon as I get to New York.”
Father Byles’ letter was dated April 10, 1912. The next day the Titanic set sail from Southampton, and was immediately threatened with mishap. Upon leaving her berth, the wake from the great ship broke the moorings holding another ship at dock. This ship, the New York, headed straight for the Titanic, and only fast work by the crew averted a collision.
The near accident was soon forgotten. The sun was shining and the ocean was calm. “I enjoyed myself,” wrote Colonel Gracie, “as if I were in a summer palace on the seashore, surrounded with every comfort – there was nothing to indicate or suggest that we were on the stormy Atlantic Ocean.” The sea was so calm Captain Smith opened the throttle. For the next two days the Titanic cruised at 24 knots over a glass-like ocean.
There was another reason for the increase in speed. Captain Smith was being badgered by Bruce Ismay, the managing director of White Star Line, to get the Titanic to New York faster than her sister ship, the Olympic. Crew and passengers recalled a conversation in which an animated Ismay repeatedly told Smith: “The machinery is bearing the test, the boilers are working well. We will make a better run tomorrow. We will beat the Olympic and get into New York on Tuesday!” Smith nodded without comment.
Father Byles strolled the boat deck in his cassock, reciting his Breviarium Romanum. Sunday, April 14, was Low Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. He said Mass for the second class passengers, and another Mass for the third class. Speaking in English and French, he talked about being spiritually prepared. He likened their lifebelts to prayer and the sacraments, and warned them to be on guard against spiritual shipwreck. It was a likely enough sermon to preach on an ocean liner. Whether Father Byles’ had a premonition of danger will never be known.
Throughout that day the Titanic had been receiving warnings from other ships about large ice fields. The month of April was notorious for icebergs, which broke off from Greenland and floated into shipping lanes in the north Atlantic. The Titanic changed its course slightly southward, but did not slow down. Sunday night was beautiful – a cloudless sky and remarkably calm sea.
As evening progressed the temperature fell to freezing and the air turned hazy. Experienced seamen knew these were signs icebergs were nearby. They were hard to see; the crew watched for white foam created when water washed against a berg. Visibility worsened, and the horizon blurred into the ocean. At 11:40 pm a lookout in the crow’s nest rang the bridge: “Iceberg right ahead.”
The Titanic turned the bow (front) of the ship away from the berg, but an underwater spar jutting out from the ice berg scraped the starboard (right) bow side of the ship under the waterline for about three hundred feet. Father Byles was on deck reading his Breviary, and saw the berg pass by. Like most passengers, he thought nothing of it. Passengers in the lower decks heard a grinding noise that quickly stopped.
Later everyone assumed the iceberg ripped a gaping hole in the Titanic. In fact the berg made a few very small holes in the steel plating, and only buckled other sections of plating. The water pressure was so intense, however, that sea water began shooting through the holes at 7 tons (almost 2000 gallons) a minute.
The Titanic’s watertight design made it possible for her to survive if four of the watertight compartments were flooded. The damage had flooded five. The Titanic’s bow began to lower. Captain Smith estimated the Titanic would sink within two hours. He ordered the lifeboats uncovered and lifebelts distributed.
This bemused most of the passengers. They did not know the Titanic was sinking and had no intention of leaving the “ship of dreams” for a little wooden lifeboat in the cold dark sea. The band played on. Men smoked, drank, and played cards. Women refused orders to enter the lifeboats. No general warning had been given, and the crew did not announce the ship was sinking. When someone asked what was wrong, a crew member joked: “We have only been cutting a whale in two.” Many passengers scoffed at the danger. “What do they need of lifeboats?” one woman asked. “This ship could smash a hundred icebergs and not feel it. Ridiculous!” Consequently, many of the lifeboats were launched only half full.
An hour after the collision the Titanic launched distress rockets, and a sense of unreality set in. Stewards were preparing dining tables for breakfast, while the band was wearing lifebelts and playing lively tunes. Ship engines had stopped but the ship was still fully lighted. “There was a sense of the whole thing being a dream," remembered a survivor. “That those who walked the decks or tied one another’s lifebelts on were actors in a scene, that the dream would end soon and we would wake up.“
Others began to take things more seriously, and willingly boarded lifeboats. The original plans called for sixty-four wooden lifeboats, but that was halved, then halved again to sixteen, partly to allow more room on deck for passengers, and partly from the assumption that lifeboats would not be needed. Even if the sixteen lifeboats had been filled to capacity, less than half of the 3,547 passengers could have used them.
When Father Byles realized the ship was sinking, he hurried down to the third class rooms to calm the people, bless them, and hear confessions. A survivor recalled:
“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 absolutions and blessings.
“A few around us became very excited and 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. One sailor warned the priest of his danger and begged him to board a boat. Father Byles refused.”
Another survivor, Bertha Moran, remembered, “Continuing the prayers, he led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women and children in, he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement.”
After helping to load the lifeboats Father Byles was again ordered to get in. Again he refused. Helen Mary Mocklare said: “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.”
Another man who refused to leave was Thomas Andrews, the architect of the Titanic. He stood alone in the first class smoking room, ignoring requests to put on a lifebelt. His eyes were fixed on a painting entitled ‘The Approach of the New World.’ He was left alone with his thoughts. His labor of love lost, perhaps it was a relief for him to go down with the ship.
So did Captain Smith, who was last seen at the bridge around 2 a.m., watching the Titanic’s bow disappear into the black ocean. The lifeboats were gone. The remaining passengers ran uphill to the stern, which rose high above the water as the bow sank further down. Father Thomas Byles continued to hear confessions, and then began the Rosary again. With a tremendous rending crack the Titanic split in half. The front half of the ship disappeared into blackness and the lights went out.
The stern settled down in the water, and floated until its compartments filled with water. Then the stern rose up from behind until it was almost perpendicular to the water, the rudder pointing at the stars. Most of the remaining passengers slid, fell, or jumped off. The stern remained straight up for a minute or two, as if in a silent salute from the vanquished to the victor. Then it began sinking straight down, like an elevator, picking up speed as it went down, down, down: plummeting more than two miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland. It sits there today, as nature continues its slow victory by eating away the remains of the “Ship of Dreams.”
After the Titanic disappeared all was quiet except for the screams, which one survivor chillingly referred to as “the chanting of locusts.” Thus did the living distance themselves from the dead and dying. The forlorn cries died away after half an hour, as the luckless souls succumbed to hypothermia in the 28 degree water. There were so many bodies that the lifeboats had trouble getting through them to the rescue ship that arrived a few hours later.
The iceberg that hit the Titanic was seen later that morning. It had a long red streak of paint across it. It was not a large berg, at least the part above the water. For the next few days, as rescue operations continued, other passenger ships heading for America passed by bodies floating in the water. Preserved by the cold, they could be seen in horrible detail, including the evening gowns and tuxedos. Many passengers of the Titanic, like Father Thomas Byles, were never found. Some sank, others drifted hundreds of miles away.
In New York Father Byles’ brother William went ahead with his wedding as scheduled. A substitute priest performed the ceremony Father Byles’ had so looked forward to performing. After being married the bride and groom went home, changed into black, and came back to St. Paul’s Church that afternoon for a requiem Mass for the soul of Father Thomas Byles.
1. The main source for the life of Father Thomas Byles is a website managed by Father Scott Archer at http://www.route24.net/~sarcher/Byles.htm.
2. Don Lynch, Titanic, An Illustrated History, New York, Hyperion Press, 1992.
3. Susan Wels, Titanic, Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner, Tehabi Books and Time-Life Books, 1997.
4. Geoffrey Marcus, The Maiden Voyage, New York, The Viking Press, Inc., 1969.
5. Judith B. Geller, Titanic: Women and Children First, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.