English priest helped Titanic passengers

Published April 10, 2012

The tragic history of the wreck of the Titanic on its maiden voyage still holds the world in thrall.

Monday, April 15, 1912, 12:10 a.m. RMS Titanic sent out its first distress signal requesting “immediate assistance”-about 30 minutes after the ship hit an iceberg 375 miles south of Newfoundland. The first people on land to know of the accident were Newfoundlanders: wireless operators stationed at desolate fog-shrouded Cape Race.

Soon this message reached the German steamship Frankfurt: “Have struck iceberg and sinking.” As the ship lost power, The Virginian picked up its last blurred message, which ended abruptly. At 2:20 a.m., Titanic sank bow first, and along with it, a good measure of the early 20th century’s faith in science, technology and human progress.

As the pride of nautical engineering was upending to its watery crypt, a man of another kind of faith was comforting many of the more than 1,500 souls who would not survive. In the aftermath, Fr. Thomas Roussel Davids Byles, a former Anglican who became a Roman Catholic priest, was hailed as one of the heroes of that disastrous night, which, as its 100th anniversary approaches, has never lost its grip on the world’s imagination.

On the morning of Sunday, April 15, Fr. Byles celebrated mass with second-class passengers in their designated lounge and then with the third-class passengers. Presciently, his sermon preached about the need to have a “lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck.”

After the collision, Byles was seen helping third-class passengers up the stairs and into the boats, hearing confessions, granting absolutions, encouraging those being lowered down to the dark Atlantic and praying with the doomed. He was allegedly twice offered a seat in a lifeboat, but he refused and went down with the ship. His heroic actions have been portrayed on the silver screen in three different films.

Poignantly, Fr. Byles was on his way to New York to officiate at the wedding of his younger brother, William.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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