"Eternal Father, Strong to Save": Fr. Thomas Byles

Sunday, April 14, 1912, was known as "Low Sunday”—otherwise known as the Sunday following Easter.

In each of the classes, masses were held in common areas.

In the First Class Dining Saloon, Captain Smith presided over a worship service.

And in the Second and Third Classes, separate Protestant and Catholic services were conducted—some, by priests on board as passengers.

One of those men was a 42-year-old Roman Catholic priest from England, named Thomas Roussel Byles.

Father Thomas Roussel Davids Byles.


Thomas was born with the name Roussel Davids Byles in 1870, the first of seven children to a Protestant minister.

Roussel had initially turned to Anglicanism while conducting his collegiate studies, but that did not quite suit.

So after his brother William had converted to Catholicism, and Roussel had reportedly had some formative encounters with the Jesuits, Roussel likewise elected to become a Catholic.

Roussel took the name of Thomas upon his conversion, which he chose in honor of his beloved saint: Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Byles was ordained on June 15, 1902, in Rome, just above Piazza Navona. He was eventually assigned to St. Helen's Church in Essex, England.

There, he was beloved as a kind religious leader and learned man by his small and disadvantaged congregation.

Though slight of build and often in ill health, Thomas even taught some of the men of the town how to box when they admitted to him that they wanted learn the sport.

Two weeks before setting sail, Thomas had a visit from his friend Monsignor Edward Watson.

Over wine, they discussed St. Helen's, as well as the size of Thomas’s luggage.

During this visit, Watson recalled that it was iceberg season, and that he'd heard they were dangerous to sea travel. As they said goodbye, Watson worried that his friend might not return to England for the opportunities and family that Thomas would find in America.

Watson told Thomas, "I hope you'll come back again."

Second-Class entrance on R.M.S. Olympic, which was identical to Titanic's. Courtesy of Bedford Lemere & Co.


Thomas boarded Titanic in Southampton as a Second-Class passenger.

He was destined for Brooklyn, New York, where he had been invited to officiate the wedding of his little brother, William—the same brother whose conversion had inspired Thomas’s own.

After electing to leave the religious life, William had moved to New York City to run a rubber business. There, he had fallen in love with a local girl named Katherine Russell, who was about to become his bride.

At some time on board Titanic, Thomas made arrangements with Captain Smith to say mass for the Second and Third Classes, using the portable altar stone and accessories Monsignor Watson had lent to him.

There were other priests on board with whom Thomas coordinated, namely a German cleric named Father Josef Peruschitz, as well as a Lithuanian priest named Father Juozas Montvila.

Thomas did not perform a morning service on April 11, 1912, as he wrote about it to his housekeeper back in Essex.

Comically, he also admitted to an absent-minded moment in that same missive.


Everything so far has gone very well, except that I have somehow managed to lose my umbrella. I first missed it getting out of the train at Southampton, but am inclined to think that I left it at Liverpool St. ...I shall not be able to say mass to-morrow morning, as we shall be just arriving at Queenstown... I will write as soon as I get to New York.

The umbrella fiasco aside, it seemed that Thomas was enjoying the voyage. And despite admitting that he found ship's vibrations unpleasant, all in all, he admired the ship a great deal.

"When you look down at the water from the top deck," he wrote, "it is like looking from the roof of a very high building."

Being the academic sort that Fr. Byles was, it is hardly surprising that fellow passenger Lawrence Beesley reportedly came across him in the Second-Class Library.

In the middle of the room are two Catholic priests, one quietly reading-either English or Irish, and probably the latter-the other, dark, bearded, with a broad-brimmed hat, talking earnestly to a friend in German and evidently explaining some verse in the open Bible before him.

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley, 1912 (Reprint: First Mariner Books 2000.)

In spite of being unable to perform Mass on April 11, Thomas reportedly heard confessions from his fellow passengers every day

On the morning of Sunday, April 14, Thomas conducted Catholic mass for Second-Class passengers in the Second-Class Library; he is reported to have recited the Propers of the Mass, as was custom for the Octave of Easter.

Simultaneously, a Protestant service was being conducted by Assistant Purser Reginald Barker.

Thomas thereafter made his way to the lower decks and performed a service for the passengers in steerage, in both English and French.

His new acquaintance, Father Josef Peruschitz, followed Thomas’s homily with his own sermon, spoken in German and Hungarian.

During this steerage Mass, Thomas and Josef reportedly spoke of the desolation of a life without faith, and about seeking salvation—and the chosen imagery therein would haunt survivors of the disaster to come.

Strangely enough each of the priests spoke of the necessity of man having a lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck.

That same night, Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter held an informal "evensong" in the Second Class Library, after lamenting the absence of options for evening worship.

It was a plan he had discussed earlier in the library with Lawrence Beesley, whom he had befriended during the voyage. Lawrence wrote that Reverend Carter enlisted his assistance in asking permission from the Purser to hold what he called  ‘a hymnal sing-song.’

The gathering was, in essence, a sing-along. Those who participated could choose each song, which was introduced with a brief history of it and its author.

It ended, Mr. Beesley thought, about 10:00 p.m.

It was here, during this Second-Class evensong, that passengers sang "Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Thanks, no doubt, to the irony of its verse regarding salvation “for those in peril on the sea,” this hymn often misrepresented as having been sung during the First-Class service held that very morning by Captain Smith.

Sheet music of "Eternal Father, Strong to Save."


There is no record of Thomas Byles being present for Reverend Carter's evensong on the night of April 14.

But Thomas was present for the iceberg itself.

He was reportedly pacing either the upper deck or the Second Class promenade, reciting the Breviarium Romanum in full priestly garb, at the moment that Titanic collided with the iceberg.

Thomas immediately headed down to Third Class.

According to survivor accounts, he spent his time there offering Blessings of Absolution, praying the Rosary with the passengers, and hearing confessions.

When the crash came we were thrown from our berths... Slightly dressed, we prepared to find out what had happened. We saw before us, coming down the passageway, with his hand uplifted, Father 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 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.

Thomas’s serene command in the chaos was impressive, and he gathered all people together in prayer.

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 the responses, "Holy Mary," were loud and strong.

Thomas proceeded to lead these Third-Class passengers through the confounding mazd of hallways up to the boat deck. He no doubt knowing full well the negligence they would encounter as steerage passengers, particularly if they could not speak English.

He prayed aloud as he guided his charges up top.

Once on the boat deck, Thomas was steadfast.  He ushered women and children into the lifeboats, offering prayer and consolation as they went.

And as the danger became more evident, Thomas went about giving absolutions.

I first saw Father Byles in the steerage. There were many Catholics there, and he eased their minds by praying for them, hearing confessions and giving them his blessing. I later saw him on the upper deck reading from his priest's book of hours... he gathered the men about him and, while they knelt, offered up prayer for their salvation.

It is consistently reported that Fr. Byles refused a spot in a lifeboat—twice.

[a seaman] warned the priest of his danger and begged him to board a boat. Father Byles refused. The same seaman spoke to him again and he seemed anxious to help him, but he refused again. Father Byles could have been saved, but he would not leave while one was left and the sailor's entreaties were not heeded.

After he had seen off the final lifeboat, Thomas moved aft.

There, a large group of passengers, reportedly regardless of their individual faiths, kneeled all around Father Byles as he recited the Rosary and administered Last Rites.

Ellen Mocklare attested to this devastating scene as her lifeboat cast away from Titanic.


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.

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.

We were told by the man who rowed our boat that we were mistaken as to the screams and that it was the people singing, but we knew otherwise.

The last sighting of Father Byles was as the broken stern rose. He was, it is said, still leading over 100 people in the Act of Contrition and giving them general Absolution.

Father Patrick McKenna, a priest who had been acquainted with Thomas for years, wrote the following in his diary.

Heroic behavior of Fr. Byles… twiced warned of danger & offered place in boat by sailor. He refused saying his duty was to stay and to minister to others. He heard confessions & gave absolution & said Rosary & sank. Victim to duty & conscience!

Thomas died in the sinking. His body was never recovered.

Once it was determined that not among the saved, the bells of St. Helen's in Essex began tolling in unrelenting sorrow.

For weeks thereafter, it was reported that Masses were said almost continuously for the repose of the soul of Thomas Byles.

At St. Helen's Catholic Church, a window depicting St. Patrick, Christ the Good Shepherd, and St. Thomas Aquinas was installed to honor the memory of Thomas, his faith, and his bravery.

The inscription on the window reads as follows. "Pray for the Rev Thomas Byles for 8 years Rector of this mission whose heroic death in the disaster to S.S. Titanic April 15 1912 earnestly devoting his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers, this window commemorates."

In Brooklyn, the bereaved William Byles and his fiancee Katharine held their wedding ceremony on time. It was considered bad luck to postpone.

Having rescinded the invitations via phone and telegram, the ceremony was small and simple, and in a different chapel. It was solemnly performed by a lifelong family friend of the bride.

After they were wed, William and Katherine promptly left the church to return home to change their clothes.

Once outfitted in black mourning attire, the newlyweds returned to the same church to attend a requiem Mass for Thomas.

Later in 1912, William and Katherine Byles met with Pope Pius X.

The Pope declared Father Thomas Byles as a martyr of the Catholic Church.

In 2015, Father Graham Smith, the priest at Thomas’s former parish of St. Helen’s, launched a petition in honor of “an extraordinary man who gave his life for others.”

And so, Thomas Byles has been nominated for beatification, so that he might become a saint.

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