Remembering the Catholic priests on board the 'Titanic'

Remembering the Catholic priests on board the 'Titanic'

AD2000 Report

Three Catholic priests, including one hailed at the time 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 14-15 April this year. A fourth, who left the ship in Ireland before the fatal collision, survived.

All three priests who went down with the ship - Father Juozas Montvila of Lithuania, Father Josef Peruschitz, OSB, of Bavaria, and Englishman Father Thomas Byles - are said to have declined lifeboats in order to offer spiritual aid to travellers who perished in the shipwreck, which took 1503 lives.

Eyewitness account

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, 14 April, only hours before the supposedly unsinkable ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

Prior to the collision, 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 in 1870, Fr Byles converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1894. He ministered to Catholics on the Titanic while travelling to America for the wedding of his brother, who had also entered the Church.

After Fr Byles' death when the ship sank, 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 in the lifeboats. The Bavarian priest-monk, born in 1871, was travelling 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 with the intention of emigrating to the US.

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 canonisation.

Best known priest

The best known of the four priests who boarded the ship was Fr Frank Browne (1880-1960), an Irish Jesuit, who was also an expert photographer. The discovery in 1985 of vast numbers of his negatives taken around the world was one of the photographic finds of the century.

While cataloging the archives of a Dublin Jesuit residence, Father Eddie O'Donnell discovered an antique steamer truck in the cellar. Inside it were 42,500 of Father Frank Browne's captioned negatives including the most comprehensive collection of Titanic photographs in existence. ( Father Browne's Titanic Album: Centenary Edition has been recently reprinted by Messenger Publications.)

Father Browne had a truly exceptional experience during the Titanic's maiden voyage in April 1912. While aboard the famed liner, he took many important photographs that have provided essential information about the ship and its fate.

When Father O'Donnell later showed the negatives to the features editor of the London Sunday Times, the editor said they were "the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Father Browne's Jesuit training began in 1897 in the novitiate and at the Royal University of Ireland (where James Joyce was a classmate who later referenced him as "Father Browne, the Jesuit" in Finnegans Wake). He then took courses in philosophy and theology from 1911 to 1916. An uncle gave him a ticket on the Titanic as a gift, with passage from Southampton to Queenstown (Cork), Ireland.

The ship's itinerary was from Southampton to Cherbourg, France, to Queenstown, then on to New York.

During his voyage to Ireland, the priest befriended an American couple who were so impressed with the young man that they offered to pay his remaining fare and expenses to New York. Father Browne declined their generous offer, explaining that his superior would not allow it.

Reluctant to give up, they suggested he send a message to inquire if he could accept. So he telegraphed his superior and received five words in reply: " Get off that ship. Provincial."

So he disembarked in Ireland, and the Titanic continued on to its tragic fate.

In the years that followed the tragedy, Fr Browne was known to joke that this was the only time he could recall when holy obedience actually saved a person's life.

In another peculiar twist of fate - or Providence - Father Browne's Titanic portfolio was discovered in 1985, the same year that Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic wreckage deep under the Atlantic Ocean.

With acknowledgement to Jennifer Roche of Wisconsin for some details.

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