Among the brave tales from the doomed Titanic are the actions of Catholic priests. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Register Archive: Tales of grace amid tragedy of Titanic

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  • April 14, 2018

April 15 marked the anniversary of one of the worst maritime tragedies — the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, when more than 1,500 died. Our regular visit to The Catholic Register Archive reveals some of the lessons and heroes of that disaster from this edited report in the April 25, 1912 issue:


New York – Feeling in this city has been wrought up to a high pitch by the suspense following upon the wreck of the Titanic and by the arrival of the Carpathia with the survivors of that wreck. 

The greatest catastrophe in the history of navigation, it has had a sobering effect on the most worldly, turning them to salutary thoughts of the littleness of man and of his works when they are brought into conflict with the elements which God hath made. On the streetcars, in the elevated trains, in the hotels and on the streets, people were eagerly scanning the latest news from the scene of the disaster. The Hearst papers, as usual, gave a multitude of false and misleading stories and caused additional anguish to the relatives of the survivors, as well as of those who perished.

The White Star Company has been one of the few which refused to install altars for Catholic service and priests have avoided this line for several years. The spectacle which edified the world when La Bourgogne went down in 1898 was also repeated in this instance. On that occasion the survivors told how the last sight that met their gaze as the ship sank from view was a priest with hand uplifted calmly, giving absolution to those kneeling about him. Thank God, the same spectacle was to be seen aboard the Titanic.

The general conduct of the ship’s officers and of the men aboard the steamer was creditable to humanity and worthy of all praise. Amongst those whose calmness and heroism stood out in that hour was Major Archibald Butt, aide of President Taft, whose untimely death is rendered all the more pathetic by the fact that he was the bearer of a personal letter from the Holy Father to the President. Archie Butt, as he was called in Washington, was a well known figure at White House functions. Tall, handsome, courteous, the very model of a perfect soldier. He was friend and confident of two successive Presidents. Taft showed his anxiety for his fate by making numerous attempts to obtain information  from the Carpathia as to whether he was amongst the survivors. The latter bear testimony to his coolness and bravery in the last trying ordeal and Americans in general will take pride in the fact that he proved true to the best traditions of the American soldier.

The uppermost thought in people’s minds, on reading the final details of the catastrophe, was that “these 1,600 lives were needlessly sacrificed. The regulations, or rather lack of regulations, laid down by the London Board of Trade will be revised before British ships can clear from American ports in the future. They will be forced to provide lifeboats sufficient to take on board the full complement of passengers and crew and they may be forced to carry trained seamen to take care of these boats. 

It is probable, too, that the transatlantic lines have been taught a lesson and that the craze for record-breaking passages may not be quite so pronounced.

The lesson of the Titanic comes with particular force to materialistic and pleasure-loving America that has long been worshipping at the shrine of those things which make for speed and progress. Confident of its own powers and forgetful of obligations to God, it cannot fail to see in this catastrophe how human pride has been brought low and the power of the Creator over His creatures strikingly asserted. It will lead to that searching of heart and fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom, and in this way may prove a blessing rather than a catastrophe.

From among many pathetic stories of the Titanic catastrophe today was a tale of two priests who went down with the Titanic while ministering to the welfare of the souls of stricken passengers grouped on their knees about them. One of the clergymen was the Rev. Thomas R.D. Byles of Westminster Parish, London, who was on his way to officiate at the marriage of his brother in Brooklyn. And the other a German priest, whose name is unknown. 

Fr. Byles was in the first cabin and the German priest in the steerage. Both had celebrated Mass in the steerage Sunday morning and, strangely perhaps, each in his sermon had spoken of the necessity for man to be possessed of the lifeboat of religious consolation in time of spiritual shipwreck. The stories of the death of the priests were related today by three women survivors of the Titanic, Ellen Mocklare, Bertha Moran and Miss McCoy.

When the liner struck the iceberg, they said, Fr. Byles came down in the steerage passageway with hand uplifted, commanding the people to be calm and giving them absolution and his blessing. “He led us to where the boats were being lowered,” said Miss Mocklare, “the meanwhile saying prayers, and helped women and children into them. He whispered words of comfort and encouragement to all. The passengers were deeply impressed by his self-control. Twice he refused to enter the boat and save himself.

“After the boat left the ship’s side,” continued Miss Mocklare, “I could hear distinctly the voices of the priests and the responses of the people to their prayers. Then they grew fainter and fainter, and finally I could hear only the strains of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. ”

(Note: Later reports established there were three Catholic priests on the Titanic, all of whom perished – Byles, Fr. Juozas Montvila of Lithuania and Fr. Josef Peruschitz of Germany. To explore more from The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive.)

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