The tragic story of RMS Titanic and the deaths of 1,500 of its passengers is well known to all. As sorrowful as it was, many heroes emerged during that ill-fated night, demonstrating true bravery and humanity to the world. Among those is the English priest, Father Thomas Byles, who lost his life.
Born Roussel Davids Byles in Leeds on February 26, 1870, he was the eldest of seven children of the Reverend Alfred Holden Byles, a renowned Protestant Congregationalist minister. Thomas Byles began his education at Leamington College and Rossall School, in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and in 1889 he started his studies of mathematics, modern history, and theology at Balliol College, Oxford. Here, he followed the steps of his brother William and converted to Catholicism. Roussel was baptized on May 23, 1894, at St. Aloysius Church in Oxford, adopting the name Thomas.
After his graduation, Thomas Byles left Oxford and joined his brother William in Germany, where he continued his studies. He later returned to England and worked as a professor at St. Edmund’s College in Hertfordshire. Teaching was no challenge for the well-educated man so, in 1899, he left for Rome, where he studied for the priesthood. Father Byles was ordained on June 15, 1902, and worked as a priest in Rome for several months. In 1903, he moved back to England and worked on converting Protestants to Catholicism, before getting assigned to St. Helen’s Church in Essex, in 1905.
In the meantime, the brother of Fr. Byles, William, had moved to New York, where he found the love of his life and decided to get married. William wanted his brother to officiate his marriage, so he invited Thomas to the United States. The priest accepted the invitation and traveled to Southampton where he boarded the magnificent ship RMS Titanic.
Father Byles had a second class ticket. He brought a portable altar stone and his priest uniform with him. The priest made arrangements with Captain Edward Smith to use a space where he could say Mass for the passengers of the Titanic. During the journey, the priest heard passengers’ confessions, and on the morning of April 14, 1912, he said Mass for the second- and third-class passengers in their lounges. At 11:40 P.M. on the same date, the Titanic collided with an iceberg.
The priest was on the upper deck when the accident occurred. Fully dressed in his robes, he descended to the third class level and led the passengers to the lifeboats. While the ship was sinking, Father Byles heard confessions and spoke calming words to the people in panic. As a real spiritual leader would, he sang with the passengers who couldn’t find a place on the lifeboats.
After the last lifeboat had left, he went to the deck where his altar was and started the recitation of the Rosary. A large group of people were kneeling around him, praying for salvation. Byles gave those left behind their absolution and remained by their side until the end. After 2 hours and 40 minutes, the prolonged demise came; at 2:20 A.M. on April 15, 1912, the brave priest, along with the other 1,500 doomed souls, perished in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Many of the survivors gave testimonials on the bravery of Father Byles. The wedding of his brother went on without him, but the bride and the groom still paid their respects to the priest. Right after their wedding ceremony, they changed into mourning clothes and attended a Requiem Mass in his honor. Later, William and his wife traveled to Rome and met Pope Pius X, who proclaimed Father Thomas Byles a “martyr for the Church.”
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The Byles family built a door for St. Helen’s Church in Ongar as a memorial to Thomas. An inscription was also made in dedication to the priest, in the corner of a stained-glass window in the church, with his photo hanging on the wall next to the window. The figure of Father Byles also appeared in the Titanic blockbuster, directed by James Cameron. Although his name is not mentioned in the movie, the priest appearing in the scenes was inspired by Thomas Byles.