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The Priests Aboard Titanic

Four Stories of Faith, Courage, and Providence

By: Louise Perrotta

April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic. The luxury liner hit an iceberg and sank five days into its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. Only 700 people survived, out of 2,200 passengers and crew.

Titanic, called the first disaster of the media global age, has been commemorated in countless books, dozens of movies and TV series, and even a Broadway musical. The fascination lives on, and this year’s anniversary is being marked by numerous productions, exhibits, and events, including a cruise retracing the ship’s route.

If you’re interested in Titanic and the stories of people who were aboard for that fateful journey, you’ll want to learn about the Catholic priests on the passenger list. There were three, and all died in the sinking—selflessly and heroically, according to survivors’ accounts. There was one seminarian as well; he escaped death thanks to “holy obedience,” as he often said in the course of the long, productive life he went on to live.

Fr. Juozas Montvila was born in Lithuania in 1885, when the country was under Russian domination. Ordained a priest in March 1908, he served the spiritual needs of Eastern Catholics in union with Rome. He ministered in secret, since the Czarist regime denied freedom of religion to Eastern Catholics. A gifted illustrator and writer, he also contributed articles and illustrations for a number of underground religious newspapers and books; these were published in Lithuanian, a language banned by the Russian regime.

Eventually, government authorities put a stop to Fr. Montvila’s activities and prevented him from exercising his priestly ministry among Lithuania’s Catholics. The 27-year-old priest then decided to work in the Lithuanian immigrant community in either Brooklyn, New York, or Worcester, Massachusetts. He traveled to England and bought a second-class ticket on the Titanic.

Survivors reported that the “young Lithuanian priest, Juozas Montvila, served his calling to the very end” by refusing a place in one of the lifeboats. Today, Lithuanians honor him as a hero—their own Maximilian Kolbe—who gave his life so that another might live.

More on Fr. Montvila here: www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/juozas-montvila.html

Fr. Joseph Peruschitz was born in Bavaria in 1871. He studied philosophy and theology before requesting admission to the Benedictine abbey of Scheyern. Professed as a monk in August 1895, Fr. Peruschitz taught math, music, and other subjects and served in various capacities at the monastery and grammar school run by the monks.

Fr. Joseph was off to a new assignment when he boarded the Titanic. Capable and unfazed by changing job descriptions, he had been called to act as principal of the Benedictines’ prep school in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Like the other priests on the liner, the German monk did not treat the voyage as a vacation from pastoral work. All three men heard confessions, and they celebrated Mass every day, one survivor recalled. On Sunday morning April 14, Fr. Peruschitz and an English priest, Fr. Thomas Byles, said one Mass in the second-class lounge, and then another for about 400 passengers in third class. Fr. Byles gave a homily in English and French, and Fr. Joseph delivered his in German and Hungarian—both were on the need for a spiritual “lifeboat,” the New York Evening World later reported.

According to a survivor’s account on the Encyclopedia Titanica website, Fr. Peruschitz and Fr. Byles acted together in the ship’s last hours, refusing every invitation to get into a lifeboat.

They helped women and children, climbing into the boats. The people on the last boat, which left the Titanic, and was saved by the Carpathia told me that an immense crowd of different people knelt around the two priests. They prayed the Rosary, the priests gave absolution and said, everybody may be ready now to appear in front of God’s chair of trial. This happened as the waves came on deck.

Father Peruschitz is commemorated with a simple plaque in the cloister of Scheyern Abbey. Written in Latin, it says: R.I.P. Father Joseph Peruschitz, OSB. He graciously gave up his life on the ship Titanic on 4/15/1912, at the age of 42, in the 17th year of his priesthood and profession.

For more on Fr. Peruschitz, visit www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/josef-peruschitz.html and www.kloster-scheyern.de/01-benediktiner/Titanic/Eng_schicksal_titanic.htm

Fr. Thomas Byles, the son of a well-known Congregationalist minister in Leeds, Yorkshire, was born Roussel Davids Byles in February 1870. While in his teens, he began a spiritual search that eventually led him into the Catholic Church. It happened in 1894, while he was studying theology at Balliol College, Oxford. He then took the name Thomas.

His brother William had already become a Catholic and even thought he might have a vocation as a Jesuit. In the end, Thomas became a priest and William moved to New York, went into business, and fell in love with a young woman from Brooklyn. It was to preside at William’s wedding that Fr. Byles booked passage on the Titanic.

He was on the upper deck, reciting his breviary, when the massive liner collided with the iceberg. By all accounts, Fr. Byles showed exceptional leadership and bravery in the agonizing hours that followed.

Fr. Scott Archer, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, who has a five-star website about Fr. Byles, writes that the priest went immediately down to the least-privileged passengers in third class. He calmed them, prayed with them, led them to the upper decks, and helped load the lifeboats. Writes Fr. Archer:

After the last lifeboat was gone, he went to the after end of the boat deck and led the recitation of the Rosary for a large group kneeling around him…. Fr. Byles also exhorted the people to prepare to meet God. As 2:20 a.m. approached, and the stern rose higher and higher out of the sea, Fr. Byles led the more than one hundred people before him in the Act of Contrition and gave them general absolution.

You’ll find much more about Fr. Byles—correspondence, eyewitness accounts, photos, and information about his family and earlier life as a priest—on Fr. Archer’s comprehensive website: http://www.fatherbyles.com/

Fr. Francis Browne, SJ, was a seminarian and not yet a priest in April 1912. And though he boarded the ship in Southampton, he left it at Queensland (now Cobh), Ireland, its second and last stop before New York. He is, therefore, a Titanic survivor of a different kind. And because of him, images of Titanic and its passengers also survive—in the dozens of photographs that the young Jesuit took only days before the stately ship went down.

Francis Browne was born in 1880 in Cork, Ireland, the youngest of eight children. His mother died eight days after his birth, and his father when Francis was nine. His uncle Robert, the bishop of Cloyne, took the orphan under his wing, raising and supporting him.

Bishop Browne gave his nephew his first camera, sparking an interest that eventually resulted in Frank’s becoming recognized as a world class photographer. The bishop must have been a somewhat indulgent uncle, because when he came into a little money, he also bought his nephew a first-class, cross-channel ticket on the Titanic.

By 1912, Francis was a Jesuit seminarian studying theology in Dublin. After traveling by train to Southampton, he boarded the Titanic on April 10. He had with him a new camera and a letter of introduction to the ship’s purser, Hugh McElroy—both items from his bishop uncle. Thanks to “the genial friendship of McElroy,” Browne had the run of the ship. He made the most of it that day and the next morning, shooting pictures of many passengers and crew, of his cabin, the first-class dining room, the gym, with its rowing machines and other equipment. His photo of the Marconi room, from which the Titanic’s SOS would be sent, is unique—no other exists.

Browne’s friendliness attracted an American millionaire couple, who enjoyed his company so much that they offered to pay his way to New York. But when the seminarian telegraphed the request to his Jesuit superior, he received a terse no: “Get Off That Ship—Provincial.” Browne kept that note in his wallet for the rest of his life, often commenting that it was the only time holy obedience ever saved a man’s life.

If Browne had remained on board, he doubtless would have acted with the same selfless courage as Fathers Byles, Montvila, and Peruschitz. Ordained a priest in July 1915, as World War I was raging, Fr. Browne went directly to the front in Flanders, as chaplain of the Irish Guards. He served with them until Spring 1920 and was wounded five times in the process—once severely, in a gas attack. For his valor on the battlefield, he received several decorations, including the Military Cross and Bar.

Fr. Browne went back to Dublin after the war, but ill health brought on by his injuries led his superiors to send him to Australia. Returning to Dublin after his year in warmer climates, Fr. Browne took on a parish assignment and, in 1929, was assigned to the Irish Jesuits’ preaching and missions staff. He traveled all over Ireland, giving retreats and parish missions, until his death in 1960.

Everywhere he went—during the war, to and from Australia, and throughout Ireland—Fr. Browne took pictures. His lifetime output is estimated at 42,000 photographs, whose quality reveals the skill of a master photographer.

Still, Fr. Browne’s negatives lay forgotten in a trunk for 25 years after his death. In 1986, fellow Jesuit Edward O’Donnell stumbled across them and realized their worth. An editor at London’s Sunday Times confirmed it by his amazed declaration that the find was “the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Fr. O’Donnell, now the curator of the Fr. Browne photo archives, has produced numerous books presenting the photographs. His 1997 book Father Browne’s Titanic Album has been updated and re-released to mark this year’s centennial.

For a sample of Fr. Browne’s photos, see www.titanicphotographs.com/ and www.fatherbrowne.com

You’ll find a video interview of Fr. O’Donnell here: www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/father-browne-video.html

And here, a newspaper article with updated information about Fr. Browne’s Titanic photos: www.derryjournal.com/lifestyle/fr_browne_s_titanic_album_released_to_mark_centenary_1_3399063/

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