Priest on Titanic: The Last Voyage of Fr. Thomas Byles

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.

On board in all directions there was the sound of running feet. It was clear there was something wrong. Before hearing anything, however, one had somehow sensed it. Some indiscernible threat had impacted and was quickly making its presence felt throughout the ship. At that moment a priest with breviary in hand was praying Night Office as he walked on the upper deck; nevertheless, as the alarms sounded he knew something had gone seriously wrong. The priest in question was Fr. Thomas Byles, and the ship’s name was Titanic.

Thomas Byles
Fr. Thomas Byles

When she set sail on her maiden voyage in 1912, Titanic was the largest vessel in the world, with a passenger capacity of 2,435; it was also claimed that she was unsinkable. In any event, no one considered such a possibility, as the ship left England before calling at Ireland and thereafter steaming out into the Atlantic.

Fr. Byles had boarded at Southampton, having left his Essex rectory early on the morning of Wednesday April 10th. Dressed in clerical black and with a single case he caught the train to London before the boat train on to the English port.  The glamour of the occasion was not lost on the ship’s passengers or indeed the priest as when, just after 12 Noon on that Easter Wednesday, they set sail to the sound of a band playing…

Relatives in America had bought his ticket. Towards the end of 1911, Fr. Byles had been invited to officiate at the marriage of his brother, William, to Miss Isabel Katherine Russell of 119 Pacific Street, Brooklyn. The ceremony was due to take place at St Augustine’s Catholic Church, Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn, on April 21st, 1912. His initial booking had been with the White Star Line but due to industrial action he was unable to sail so at the last minute his ticket was transferred and an alternate berth secured upon a new ship, Titanic.

On departing Southampton, Fr. Byles wrote a letter to his elderly housekeeper, one that was later to be posted when the ship docked briefly in Ireland. His concerns in that were both temporal and spiritual.  He feared he had lost his umbrella whilst travelling on the train to the dock and, perhaps more importantly, that he wouldn’t be able to say Mass until the ship cleared the Irish port of Queenstown (Cobh); it was only after that that he expected to be able to do so each day.  In conclusion, he promised to write when he landed at New York.

Byles had been born at Leeds, England, on February 26th 1870. The eldest of seven children, perhaps understandably the family atmosphere was devout as his father was a Protestant minister. He was educated locally and at Leamington in the English Midlands where the family moved when he was aged 12. In 1885, he won a scholarship to a boarding school in Lancashire. It was here that he discovered two things: that he suffered from epilepsy and that he had doubts about the Protestantism he had been raised in. As with another famous English convert some decades earlier, Byles began a study of the early Church Fathers. But, as the doubts slowly started to subside it became apparent that he was being lead to an unexpected place: Rome.

In 1888, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, having secured a Mathematics Scholarship, however, he was eventually to change to Theology, gaining a Third Class degree in 1894. It was whilst at the university that he decided to embrace Anglicanism. Earlier it had been his brother, William, who had shocked the wider family by converting to Catholicism whilst also at Oxford. His brother’s conversion was to have a markedly different effect upon the younger Byles, however, especially as his study of the Church Fathers deepened. Soon after, having previously considered taking Anglican Orders, he decided to postpone any such decision.

What he was later to describe as a ‘fog’ now descended. Having left the Protestantism of his family, and no longer content with his recently acquired Anglicanism, Byles found himself struggling to discern what was the true course.  Perhaps, by then, he knew in his heart that there was only one way left, but still he hesitated in taking it. Then, unexpectedly, on the eve of the Feast of Corpus Christi, during a prolonged period of meditation, the definitive way finally revealed itself. Thereafter, there was no hesitation. On the Feast itself, Byles was received into the Church at the then Jesuit church in Oxford, and, in so doing, received Holy Communion for the first time and, now free of all doubts, was also given a new Christian name, Thomas.

Byles wrote to his family that the ‘fog had cleared’, but in their case an altogether different mist thereafter descended.  Still, he had made his decision, and soon after he attended Oscott Seminary, but his health, never good, prevented his persisting in his theological studies; soon he was forced to leave. What was next, he wondered? He taught for a while, as well as writing a short work: A School Commentary on the Second Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, later published by the Catholic Truth Society, in hindsight, his choice of epistle is a curious one, for it is one of the few places in Scripture that reference a shipwreck.

Still dogged by illness, he was not a success as a schoolteacher. By 1899, however, Byles was sufficiently restored to leave for the Beda College in Rome where he was to pursue further both his studies and a possible vocation. Eventually, confirmed in the latter, he was ordained priest on June 15th 1902. Further studies precluded his leaving Rome for another year, finally returning to England early in 1903. Initially, his ministry was in London, but was interrupted by ill health. Thereafter, he was sent to the country to convalesce. The following year, he was to return to his priestly ministry albeit now in the country parishes of Essex. And it was here he was to stay until he received a telegram that told of the forthcoming wedding of his brother, now resident in New York, and with it an invitation…

On board Titanic there were passengers of all social classes and of different nationalities and amongst them there were three priests: alongside the Englishman, a brother priest from Bavaria and another from Lithuania.

As the ship made its way into the Atlantic, Fr. Byles was in 2nd Class, but it was to be mainly in steerage, where many of the passengers were Irish, that he was to spend those initial days. On Saturday, April 13th, he was hearing confessions for hours in preparation for the next day: Low Sunday. When Sunday did come, he said Mass for the passengers in steerage, giving a sermon that reflected the circumstances of the then congregation, talking as he did of the need for the ‘lifeboat of faith’ in the ever changing waters of life.  He could not have foreseen how prescient these words were to become only a few hours later.  On that fateful Sunday, the afternoon was given over to more devotions before concluding with the recitation of the Rosary. And, as night fell, the unsinkable Titanic ploughed on through the Atlantic with all appearing to be in order. It was an illusion, however, and one that was to shatter when later that evening at 11.40PM the alarm began to sound wildly.

On hearing its shriek, Fr. Byles immediately descended below decks to steerage. There, as on all decks, fear was rapidly changing to a suffocating panic; the priest moved through the confusion realising that this was the moment not just for the saving of lives but also for the salvation of souls. And as this thought came to him, he perceived what was now to be his role in this. It was as if it was for that moment he had been preparing all his life, the culmination of his whole life’s varied journey. This was a role that had fallen to him as unexpectedly as what was now needed suddenly crystallised in the priest’s mind – and with that he got to work.

The first thing he did was to call for calm, doing so by asking for ‘silence’. Slowly, the frightened crowd in front of him quietened. He then called upon all present to make an Act of Contrition before, having explained the present dangers, starting the evacuation of women and children to the top deck, with the priest escorting these upwards through the various decks.

Here is not the place to speak of how the route for steerage passengers was initially barred, or how those on the upper decks were given preference over the poorer passengers from ‘below’. Needless to say, Fr. Byles paid no attention to such class distinctions and worked as quickly and as calmly as he could to usher the women and children he led to the lifeboats then being deployed. The one characteristic of the priest most in evidence, and most remarked on later by survivors, was his presence of mind throughout. It was indeed as if it was for this that he had been preparing all his life. Seeing the first batch of women and children safely aboard lifeboats, and declining an offer to join them, he descended once more below decks.

The ship’s band had been brought on deck to try and calm the increasingly fraught atmosphere with what must have seemed surreal musical accompaniment. Nevertheless, very quickly it was becoming clear that there were not going to be enough lifeboats. Soon the priest was to stand on deck surrounded by many others who awaited rescue but who were now effectively stranded. In the growing terror, Fr. Byles again refused the offer of a place in one of the few remaining lifeboats.

Finally, all those stood on deck watched as the last lifeboat disappeared into the black horizon, and as they did so they knew that with it had departed all earthly hope. The band on deck changed to playing hymns, including Abide with Me.  As its melody sounded across the deck, one often heard at funerals, some began to cry, some stared ahead blankly, whilst others fell to their knees with heads bowed as they gripped the ships railings, but there were those who continued to pray – one being the English priest. This was the moment all Christian souls have to face, the final reality of the battle between life and death, faith and non-existence, and that moment had now come for those left on board, Fr. Byles included. He looked around at those stood, sat, or knelt in front of him – many of whom now looking to him; he noted too the first approaches of dark waters upon the deck…

Placing himself as high as he could, he raised his hand in one last act of blessing and absolution, then, remaining standing as he had done throughout, Rosary and its Crucifix in hand, Fr. Byles began once more to lead those gathered around him in the recitation of that ancient prayer as hymns continued to be played …

Those who had escaped watched helplessly from the lifeboats as the figures on deck grew ever dimmer and the sounds of prayer now seemed mingled with that of wailing. And yet, at the head of those so left, still faintly discernible in the distance, was Fr. Byles.

When, at last, it started, the sound was terrifying. Slowly, the ship lurched ever upwards, before thereafter a rapid descent as it crashed into the sea below with the resultant waves rolling outwards to the fleeing lifeboats that started to bob in its wake. And, looking back transfixed as the ship did so, some of its survivors made the Sign of the Cross offering prayers for those now departed who only hours earlier had been all too real flesh and blood. At that moment, in the enveloping darkness, they prayed too for their own safety and the precarious journey ahead, pushed on by the waves emanating from that now vanished vessel – no longer a sailing ship, but instead forever a grave to 1,516 souls, and a memorial to an English Catholic priest, Fr. Thomas Byles.

Hold… Thy cross before my closing eyes…

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

 (The author is grateful for having been granted access to the original research of Fr. Stewart Foster upon which this article is based.)

Avatar photo


KV Turley writes from London

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage