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.
Sacrifice of Titanic's Catholic Priests Recalled on 100th Anniversary
Denver, Colo., Apr 17, 2012 / 03:05 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Three Catholic priests, including one hailed by Pope Saint Pius X as a martyr for the faith, were among the victims of the Titanic disaster remembered during its 100th anniversary on April 14-15.
All three of the European-born priests – Father Juozas Montvila of Lithuania, Father Josef Peruschitz, O.S.B. of Bavaria, and English rector Father Thomas Byles – are said to have declined lifeboats in order to offer spiritual aid to travelers who perished in the shipwreck, which claimed 1503 lives.
An eyewitness account of the 1912 sinking, published in the Jesuit journal “America,” described how “all the Catholics on board desired the assistance of priests with the greatest fervor.”
The priests led passengers in recitation of the Rosary, and “aroused those condemned to die to say acts of contrition and prepare themselves to meet the face of God.” According to the eyewitness, they were “engaged continuously giving general absolution to those who were about to die.”
Fr. Byles and Fr. Peruschitz had offered Mass on the morning of Sunday, April 14, only hours before the supposedly “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
Prior to the crash, both men had preached sermons on humanity's need for the spiritual “lifeboat” offered by Jesus Christ amid the dangers of the world.
Born in Yorkshire, England during 1870, Fr. Byles converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1894. He ministered to Catholics on the Titanic while traveling to the U.S. for the wedding of his brother, who had also entered the Church.
After Fr. Byles' death in the shipwreck, St. Pius X reportedly described him as a “martyr.” A plaque at his onetime parish recalls his “heroic death in the disaster,” after “earnestly devoting his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers.”
Fr. Peruschitz was also described by eyewitnesses as declining a place on the lifeboats. The Bavarian priest-monk, born in 1871, was traveling on the Titanic to take up his new position as principal of a Benedictine high school in Minnesota.
His body, like those of the other two priests, was not recovered. A memorial at his onetime monastery in Bavaria reads: “May Joseph Peruschitz rest in peace, who on the ship Titanic piously sacrificed himself.”
The youngest of the three priests, Fr. Juozas Montvila, was born in 1885. Ordained in 1908, he secretly ministered to Eastern Catholics in Lithuania, whose faith had been outlawed by authorities of the Russian Empire.
Under government pressure, Fr. Montvila was forced to leave the country in order to continue his priestly ministry. He boarded the Titanic in Southhampton, England, with the intention of emigrating to the U.S.
Reports from the sinking ship recounted how the Byzantine-rite priest “served his calling to the very end.” Since then, there have been efforts toward his canonization.