Previously I posted about a heroic woman, Rosemary Koenig. Last week a friend alerted me to a heroic man I was not aware of: Rev. Thomas Byles, who went down when the Titanic sank in April, 1912. Today I would like to introduce you to him.
Born in Yorkshire the oldest of seven children, Thomas was the son of a Congregationalist minister. At Oxford while studying theology, he converted to the Church of England. Later, like his younger brother William, he became a Roman Catholic and received the name Thomas.
He studied for the priesthood at the Gregorian in Rome and was ordained in 1902. After several years as a professor at St. Edmund’s College he was a founding member of the Catholic Missionary Society, whose goal was to convert English Protestants. Father Thomas was appointed to St. Helen’s Parish in Essex in 1905. People in this poor, rural parish knew him as intelligent, witty, a good preacher, and a caring pastor. He taught boys to box in a shed behind the church!
When William invited his brother to come to New York City to officiate at his wedding 1912, Father Thomas planned to sail there. His parishioners, who loved and appreciated him, helped pay for his trip with the White Star Line. At the last minute that trip was cancelled, and he was transferred to a new ship, the RMS Titanic.
On the morning of Divine Mercy Sunday (the week after Easter), Father Thomas celebrated Mass for the second-class passengers and then the third-class passengers. The readings were about resurrection. Ironically, Father’s sermon was about spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation. He said that prayer and the sacraments were like a spiritual lifeboat.
As Father Thomas was walking on the upper deck praying the Divine Office (his breviary), the Titanic struck the iceberg. For the next two hours and forty minutes as the ship sank, he encouraged and comforted people. He helped third-class passengers up to the lifeboats. It’s said that he refused to board a lifeboat two times.
After all the lifeboats were launched, Father Thomas prayed the Rosary and other prayers, heard confessions, and absolved more than a hundred people who were trapped on the ship’s stern.
Father perished with more than 1500 others. He was forty-two years old. His body was never recovered or identified. His brothers installed a door in his memory at St. Helen’s. A photograph and a stained-glass window were placed there to commemorate his heroism. The window dedicated to him shows St. Patrick, the Good Shepherd, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Pope Pius X called the good priest a martyr for the Church. In April 2015, the process of canonization began for Father Thomas Byles.
Father Thomas gave his life so that another may live. He reminds me of St. Maximilian Kolbe who took the place of the man condemned to death by the Nazis. Their sacrifice makes me wonder what I would do.
• How are you practicing “white martyrdom,” enduring the trials of everyday living with courage?