A campaign to canonise a Catholic priest who stayed on the RMS Titanic instead of fleeing remains ongoing despite renewed interest in his story.
The story of Father Thomas Byles and his acts of selflessness, however, deserves re-telling.
Roussel Davids Byles was born in 1870 to a Protestant family in Leeds. His father, Reverend Dr. Alfred Holden Byles and mother Louisa Davids also had six other children.
He excelled at mathematics and gained a scholarship to Balliol School, Oxford. When at Oxford, Byles gravitated towards the Church of England. His younger brother, William, however, converted to Catholicism first.
In 1894, he had a conditional baptism (sub conditione) at St. Aloysius Church in Oxford. Upon entering the Catholic faith, Roussel adopted the name of Thomas.
After spending two years in Rome, Byles became the ordained priest of St Helen’s Church, Chipping Ongar, Essex in 1904.
In 1912, he had boarded the ship to attend the wedding of his younger brother William, in New York. This last minute decision to board the Titanic instead of a different ship cost him £13 (roughly £1,100 today). His second class ticket was number 244310.
His duties included performing mass for second and third class passengers. Two other Catholic priests, Fr
Juozas Montvila from Lithuania and Fr Joseph Peruschitz from Germany also gave daily mass.
On the morning of the tragedy on April 14, his sermon, delivered in English and French, argued that prayer serves as a spiritual lifeboat in times of strife and temptation.
A stained-glass window at St Helen’s Church in Essex immortalises his selflessness. He had “earnestly devoted his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers”.
Fr Byles had walked the upper decks of the ship, reciting the Breviarium Romanum, as the ship struck the iceberg.
As the scale of the tragedy grew by the hour, Fr Byles had twice refused a space on a lifeboat. He spent his time shepherding women and children to safety. And offering them words of comfort and absolution.
Upon the departure of the final lifeboat, Fr Byles gathered a crowd of individuals at the rear of the ship. Here, he led the recital of the Rosary. Fr Juozas Montvila and Fr Joseph Peruschitz had also stuck to their religious duties until the end.
As the stern rose higher, in their final moments, Fr Byles gave absolution to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews trapped in the rising waters.
Fr Byles was among the 1,500 to perish aboard the Titanic on April 15 1912. The bodies of all three Catholic priests were never recovered.
As they departed, an eyewitness recalled:
“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 (Byles) and the responses to his prayers. Then they became fainter and fainter, until I could only hear the strains of ‘Nearer My God, To Thee’and the screams of the people left behind”.
His family mourned his loss after learning that he had not boarded the rescue ship RMS Carpathia. In total, the rescue mission saved 702 lives.
Family members had later flown to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius X.
According to the Edmundian Assosciation, Pius X declared that Fr Byles had been a martyr for the church.
The thrust of campaign to canonise Fr Byles is the current priest of St Helen’s, Fr Graham Smith. In June last year, he told the BBC that “We are hoping and praying that he will be recognised as one of the saints within our canon.”
Prayer forms a vital part of the beatification process. Sainthood requires a proven miracle to be attributed to prayers made to the person after death.
To mark the centenary of his death in 2012, a number of events honoured his life and sacrifice. This included the unveiling of a memorial plaque at Rossall Public School in Lancashire.