Fr. Thomas Byles was a 43-year-old priest from England whose parish was St. Helen’s Church in Essex. He boarded the Titanic, the ship that was thought to be “unsinkable” in order to go to New York to preside at his brother’s wedding, but, on April 15, 1912, the mighty Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. More than 1500 people died that day due to the ship’s lack of lifeboats for its over 2200 passengers. Fr. Byles was among them. Though he never made it to his brother’s wedding, he could have.
Survivors of the shipwreck have told of Fr. Byles’ heroic sacrifice: He was offered to board a lifeboat twice, but he forewent those opportunities in order to hear confessions and to offer consolation and prayers with those who were trapped aboard. When he was given a chance to save his own life, he put the needs of his flock first. This “Good Shepherd” never abandoned his flock. He saved lives and brought consolation and comfort to many.
Here are a few examples of testimonies of the Titanic survivors (these and others have been collected and can be found at http://www.fatherbyles.com):
Miss Agnes McCoy, a third class passenger, said Fr. Byles had been on the ship, hearing confessions, praying with passengers and giving his blessing as the vessel sank.
Helen Mary Mocklare, another third class passenger, offered more details about the final hours of Fr. Byles’ life. “When the crash came we were thrown from our berths … We saw before us, coming down the passageway, with his hand uplifted, Father Byles,” she recalled. “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 absolution and blessings…” A few around us became very excited and then it was that 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.”
She recounted that a sailor “warned the priest of his danger and begged him to board a boat.” Although the sailor was anxious to help him, the priest twice refused to leave. “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.”
More than a century later, Father Graham Smith – the current priest at Fr. Byles’ former parish of Saint Helen’s – is the promoter for opening his cause for beatification. “We hope people around the world will pray to him if they are in need and, if a miracle occurs, then beatification and then canonization can go forward.”
Living in a world that is so caught up with having, even at the expense of sacrificing others for our selfish gain, Fr. Byles’ heroic selfless sacrifice will serve to teach and inspire us to sacrifice ourselves in order to serve, to care for, to console and to love others, a calling that we all have received as followers of Christ. All the Saints of God, pray for us!