May 2004 Print


Mark Fellows


There was no doubt any more that the ship was going to sink to the bottom of the ocean. A deck hand urged the priest to get on a lifeboat but he refused. In the last minutes of his life he ministered to dozens of frightened people, hearing confessions and giving absolution. Gathering perhaps one hundred people around him, 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. Although the body of the priest, Fr. Thomas Byles, was never found, many survivors remembered his courage and selflessness on that fatal night. How he came to be a Catholic, then a Catholic priest, and finally a casualty at sea, is an interesting story.

Conversion and Priesthood

He was born Roussel David Byles, in England in 1870, the year of Vatican Council I and the seizure of Rome by the Italian Republic. His father, Dr. Alfred Holden Byles, was a well-known Protestant minister. The Byleses would have seven children in all, and at least three, including Roussel (who took the name Thomas when ordained), 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. He soon became dissatisfied with Anglicanism, and wrote his brother William: "The fact is 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."

William had already converted to Catholicism, and the two brothers had a lively religious correspondence. Roussel converted in 1894, an event of which The Tablet wrote:

Probably no one on earth knows all he went through–all the prayers he offered, all the works of mortification which he practised....About Trinity Sunday arrived a letter which seemed to breathe a note of despair that he was ever going to get the grace he was looking for, but on Corpus Christi the last letter came. Two days, before, whilst making his meditation, the fog had cleared away.

There had been a short visit to the Jesuits at St. Aloysius and 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.

After converting, Byles tutored a German prince, then worked as a professor at a seminary. In 1899 he went to Rome to study for the priesthood, and was ordained in 1902 as Fr. Thomas Byles. An intellectual of slight build and frail health, he was eventually assigned to St. Helens, a small, rough, rural parish in Essex, England. Many of the parishioners lived miles away from church, and Fr. 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 dramatically.

Although Byles also 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 somewhat nervous disposition, and a tendency to be argumentative. A nearby priest who knew Byles found him so, anyway, yet nevertheless admitted:

But 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 Fr. Byles experienced internal rebellion at being placed in the rural outback. The objective evidence is that he was deeply committed to St. Helens and his parishioners, and expended 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....

Fr. Byles's 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 fiancee. Fr. 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"


At the time, transporting people across the ocean had become 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 Titanic grew out of this competition.

Originally, White Star Line intended Titanic (and sister ship 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.R 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, 15,000 men began building Titanic.

Three years later, the largest moving object ever constructed was near completion. An observer described 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 20,000 pounds. Twenty-nine boilers, each large enough to house a double-decker bus, were daily fed the 5,000 pounds of coal required to move the ship. Dubbed "the monster of the sea," when fully completed 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 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 flounder....Modern ship-building has gone beyond that." Noting the ship's watertight design, an engineering magazine declared that 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 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 the chances for a new life offered to its third class passengers, mostly immigrants seeking their fortunes in America. The maiden voyage of 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. They all knew they were part of an historic event.

Fr. Byles boarded in Southampton. Upon finding 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, concluding:

That makes 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 shall not be able to say Mass tomorrow morning, as we shall be just arriving at Queenstown and there will consequently be some confusion, but after that there will be no difficulty about it....I will write as soon as I get to New York....

The Voyage

Fr. Byles's letter was dated April 10, 1912. The next day 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 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." So calm was the sea that Captain Smith allowed the engines to open up, and for the next two days Titanic cruised at 24 knots over the 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 Titanic to New York faster than her sister ship, 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 Olympic and get into New York on Tuesday!" Smith nodded without comment.

Fr. 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 Fr. Byles's words came from a premonition of danger about the lives of the passengers on Titanic will never be known.

Throughout that day 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 became hazy. Experienced seamen knew these were signs that icebergs were nearby.

More reports came in from other ships about icebergs directly in Titanic's path. Generally, icebergs were hard to see, so the crew watched for white foam created when water washed against a berg. Up in the crow's nest the crew noted visibility was worsening, and the horizon was blurring into the ocean. At 11:40pm a lookout 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. Fr. Byles was on deck reading his Breviary, and saw the berg pass by. Like most passengers, he thought nothing of it. Some passengers in the lower decks heard a grinding noise that quickly stopped. Later everyone assumed the ice berg ripped a gaping hole in Titanic. In fact the berg made several very small holes in the steel plating, and 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 Titantic'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 Titanic would sink within two hours. He ordered the lifeboats uncovered and lifebelts distributed.

This bemused most of the passengers. They did not know Titanic was sinking and had no intention of leaving the safety of the "ship of dreams" for a little wooden lifeboat in the cold, dark sea. The band played on, men smoked, drank, and played cards, and the women refused orders to enter the lifeboats. No general warning had been given, and many of the crew were not as yet telling everyone 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 Titanic launched distress rockets, and a sense of unreality set in. Stewards were preparing dining tables for breakfast, and the band was wearing lifebelts and playing lively tunes. The ship's 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 conviction 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 Fr. 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, Fr. 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. Fr. Byles refused.

Miss Bertha Moran remembered:

Continuing the prayers, he led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women and children and he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement.

After helping to load the lifeboats Fr. Byles was again asked to get in. Again he refused. Miss Helen Mary Mocklare said:

Fr. 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 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, and went down with the ship.

So did Captain Smith, who was last seen at the bridge around 2am, watching Titanic's bow disappear under the black water. The lifeboats were all gone, and the remaining passengers ran uphill to the stern, which was raising high out of the water as the bow sank further down. Fr. Thomas Byles continued to hear confessions, and then began the Rosary again. There was a tremendous crack as Titanic split in half. The front half of the ship completely disappeared 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, 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, 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 at the remains of the "Ship of Dreams."


After Titanic disappeared all was quiet except for the screams, which one survivor likened to "the chanting of locusts." These died away after half an hour, as those in the water succumbed to hypothermia in the 28°F 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 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 all their horrible detail, including the evening gowns and tuxedos. Many passengers of Titanic, like Fr. Thomas Byles, were never found. Some sank, others drifted hundreds of miles away.

In New York, William went ahead with his wedding as scheduled. A substitute priest performed the ceremony. After being married the bride and groom went home, changed into black, and came back to St. Paul's Church that afternoon for a Solemn High Requiem Mass for the soul of Fr. Thomas Byles. Later that year William and his wife traveled to Rome and had an audience with Pope Pius X, who called Fr. Byles a martyr for the Church. In a letter to his mother-in-law, William recalled his brother leading the Rosary on the doomed ship, writing:

Can you see all those poor people saying the Rosary, and Our Lady at the other end of the Rosary pulling some of them into lifeboats, and others to hear the happy command: "Enter thou into the Joy of the Lord"?

If life can be likened to a shipwreck, eternally happy are those who heed Fr. Byles's advice: do not abandon the spiritual life or the practice of the true religion. They are more secure than lifebelts and lifeboats, and safer than any "ship of dreams" we may have booked passage on.

Mark Fellows is an itinerant Catholic writer who has appeared in several Catholic publications. He lives in South St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and expanding family.



1. The main source for the life of Fr. Thomas Byles is a website managed by Fr. Scott Archer at 

2. Lynch, Don. Titanic: An Illustrated History. New York: Hyperion Press, 1992.

3. Wels, Susan. Titanic: Legacy of the World's Greatest Ocean Liner. Tehabi Books and Time-Life Books, 1997.

Marcus, Geoffrey. The Maiden Voyage. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.

5. Geller, Judith B. Titanic: Women and Children First. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.