Father Thomas Byles: heroic 'Titanic' priest

Father Thomas Byles: heroic 'Titanic' priest

Michael Daniel

Fr Thomas Byles was born Roussel Davids Byles on 26 February 1870, the eldest son of the Rev Dr Alfred Holden and Louisa Byles. His father was a respected Congregationalist minister, who came from an active political family. The young Roussel was educated at Leamington College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Mathematics, Modern History and Theology, before being awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1894.

During his schooling, Roussel was convinced of the weakness of Non-Conformity's historical position and its neglect of the sacraments. He thus entered the Anglican Church soon after he went up to Oxford. With his keen interest in ritual, the Church Fathers and adopting practices such as fasting and confession, he was particularly attracted to Anglo-Catholicism.

Roussel initially decided to seek the Anglican ministry; however, he became less convinced of the Anglican Church's claims and, early in 1894, decided to postpone his diaconal ordination. A letter to his brother William, who had already converted to Catholicism, outlines the reasons for his conversion:

"My difficulty is something like this: Our Lord taught 1900 years ago in a country known as Palestine, for about the space of three years. After that time He ascended into Heaven, but before doing that He made provision for the teaching of posterity the words which He had spoken. A great many of these words have since been written down by Evangelists under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. That this is not sufficient of itself we see by the fact that whereas one man who receives the Holy Scripture as the inspired Word of God professes to find from that Scripture one thing, another man professes to find quite another thing, and yet both alike profess to find it after prayer, and under the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

"Now as I have said, Our Lord did make provision for the teaching of His people after He was gone. He did establish a Church which should teach the world that which is contained in Holy Scripture, and should be able to decide, if necessary, what was the meaning of any disputed passage, and should be able to solve any doubts and difficulties of any of its members. Now this was a great work for Him to give to His Church, but He also made it able to do it. He did send it the promised Comforter whom He promised would remain with it always (St John XIV. 16). And again, when He sent them out to preach, He promised that He Himself would be with them...".

Despite great opposition from his mother, Roussel entered the Church a few months after penning this letter, on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1894, taking Thomas as his baptismal name. Soon afterwards, he accepted a position of tutor to the second son of Prince von Waldburg-Wolfegg-Waldstein.

Thomas was determined to study for the Catholic priesthood; however, he found the climate of the seminary at Oscott too taxing on his health and so took up a position as a master at St Edmund's College, Ware, a Catholic boys' school and seminary, where he both taught and continued his studies.

Eyewitness accounts

In 1899 he was sent to study at the Beda in Rome, the English seminary established primarily for convert clergrymen, but also for late vocations, and was ordained on 15 June 1902. After various appointments, Fr Thomas Byles was assigned to the poor parish of St Helen's in Ongar, Essex, in 1905, where he was known as a man humbly devoted to serving the poor.

Although Thomas' brother William tested his vocation with the Jesuits, he later emigrated to New York to run a rubber business and became engaged to Katherine Russell. Fr Thomas, eagerly looking forward to being reunited with his brother and blessing his marriage, obtained a White Star Line ticket. At the last minute, his passage was shifted to the White Star Line's newest and grandest ship, the Titanic.

On Sunday 14 April 1912, Fr Byles offered what were his last two Masses, one in the Second Class Lounge, followed by another for Third Class passengers. Ironically, he preached on the need to have "a lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of shipwreck."

Eyewitness accounts, particularly one from Helen Mocklare, a third-class passenger, attest to his leadership and courage, after the Titanic struck the iceberg. Fr Byles assisted in bringing third-class passengers trapped below decks up to the lifeboats and in loading them. He heard over one hundred confessions, before administering general absolutions as the vessel was about to sink.

Helen Mocklare related: "'Be calm, my good people,' he said and then it was that 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. The same seaman spoke to him again and he seemed anxious to help him, but he refused again. Father Byles could have been saved, but he would not leave while one was left and the sailor's entreaties were not heeded."

William and Isabelle did not postpone their wedding. Instead, it was a simple ceremony. After the wedding the newlyweds changed into mourning attire and returned to the Church for a Solemn Requiem Mass for Fr Byles. Masses were also offered at St Helen's, Ongar, and at Westminster Cathedral. Later in 1912, in an audience with the newlyweds, Pope St Pius X was to remark that Fr Thomas Byles was "a martyr for the Church".

This article is based upon documents and other material compiled by Fr Scott Archer on his website: www.route24.net/~sarcher/Byles.htm or http://homepage.davesworld.net/~sarcher/Byles.htm

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