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‘Spiritual Lifeboats’ on the Titanic

Posted on April 11, 2024 in: General News

‘Spiritual Lifeboats’ on the Titanic

The three Catholic priests on the doomed ship heroically brought comfort and absolution to its passengers until the end

By K.V. Turley

4/1/2024

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On the night of April 14, 1912, as RMS Titanic plowed through the Atlantic, all appeared to be in order. It was to prove a tragic illusion.

The ocean liner had set sail with much fanfare from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. The ship made first for the French port of Cherbourg to pick up passengers, crew and supplies, and then to Queenstown, Ireland. From there, the Titanic was bound for its final destination — New York City — due to arrive on the morning of April 17.

But the ship never did arrive: The Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, and sank at 2:20 a.m. on Monday, April 15, with the loss of 1,516 lives.

Over a century later, the ship deemed “unsinkable” still haunts the public imagination. It has become a symbol of many things: luxury, innovation, social and class divisions, technological hubris. Yet, it endures as a sign of something else besides: the heroism of the priestly vocation. For as that Second Sunday of Easter drew to a close — a day that later became synonymous with Divine Mercy — three ordinary Catholic priests were called to become extraordinary martyrs to charity.

NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY

Of the 2,224 passengers on board the Titanic, three were priests: Father Thomas Byles, 42, from England; Father Juozas Montvila, 27, from Lithuania; and Father Josef Benedikt Peruschitz, 41, from Germany.

However glamorously the sea crossing may have been portrayed by the shipping company, for the priests, as for many passengers, it was simply a means to an end. Father Byles, a convert to Catholicism, was traveling to New York City to officiate at his brother’s wedding. Father Montvila was to begin life in that same city at a parish for Lithuanian immigrants. Father Peruschitz, a Benedictine monk and teacher, was heading to Minnesota to help start a school.

What linked the men was that which defined them: their priesthood. However, they also shared another quality, and that was their very ordinariness. None of them was considered remarkable by their superiors.

The main reason Father Peruschitz was chosen to go to the United States was because he was deemed young enough to adapt to the challenge. His brother monks at Scheyern Abbey in Bavaria had known a good priest and monk, but a man who in no way stood out. In fact, after his death the monastery struggled to say anything about him other than he had met his end as any monk would be expected to do.

Ordained in 1902, Father Byles had struggled for years with his health. He started his ministry in London but soon was sent to the countryside of Essex to escape the strain of city life. A small rural parish was thought about right for his gifts and aptitude.

Father Montvila, serving as a vicar in what is today northeastern Poland, had attended to the spiritual needs of the Unitates, Eastern-rite Catholics whose presence was unwelcome in czarist Russia. As a result, he was denied permission by the authorities to minister in his homeland. So that he could once again openly serve as a priest, his superiors dispatched him to America, where his brother, who lived in Brooklyn and helped cover his fare on the Titanic, was waiting to greet him.

In the midst of them was a tall figure … [who] climbed upon a chair or a coil of rope so that he was raised far above the rest. His hands were stretched out as if he were pronouncing a blessing.”

Reading their biographies, one can imagine the largely uneventful lives — at least in the eyes of the world — that might have followed their ocean journey. Yet, on the Titanic, all three men received a call within a call, as their vocation to priestly service took an unforeseen turn.

Survivors would later describe Father Byles and Father Peruschitz celebrating holy Mass each day for passengers in steerage and spending time with passengers in the ship’s library. Lawrence Beesley, an English schoolteacher who later wrote a book about his Titanic experience, recounted: “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.”

On Saturday, April 13, Father Byles heard confessions for hours in preparation for the following day: the Second Sunday of Easter, then known as Low Sunday and today as Divine Mercy Sunday. On April 14, he delivered a homily, in English and French, on the theme “Our prayers and the sacraments of the Church are spiritual lifeboats taking us back to God”; Father Peruschitz delivered the homily in German and Hungarian. Both priests preached on the necessity to have a “lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck.”

SAVING LIVES — AND SOULS

Later that night, as word spread that the ship had struck an iceberg, Father Byles and Father Peruschitz descended below decks to steerage, where fear was descending into suffocating panic. The priests quickly realized that saving souls was even more important than saving lives. Perhaps, too, they sensed that God had been preparing them for this moment.

Compared to the other priests, little is known of Father Montvila’s movements that night. Reports simply state that “the young Lithuanian priest, Juozas Montvila, served his calling to the very end.” There are witness accounts of Father Byles and Father Peruschitz, though, and the picture that emerges is remarkable.

An eyewitness later told America magazine: “When all the excitement became fearful, all the Catholics on board desired the assistance of priests with the greatest fervor. Both priests aroused those condemned to die to say acts of contrition and prepare themselves to meet the face of God.”

Then the priests began to organize the evacuation of women and children, escorting them upward through the various decks while leading the rosary and giving general absolution. Witnesses later reported that the dominant characteristic of Father Byles was his presence of mind.

Bertha Moran, an Irish garment worker traveling third-class, would tell The Evening World: “Continuing the prayers, he led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women and children in, he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement.” Seeing the first batch of women and children safely aboard lifeboats, he declined an offer to join them.

Another young Irish woman, Ellen Mockler, would later say: “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 response to his prayers. Then they became fainter and fainter, until I could only hear the strains of [the hymn] ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ and the screams of the people left behind. We were told by the men who rowed our boat that we were mistaken as to the screams and that it was the people singing, but we knew otherwise.”

Another passenger on that last lifeboat, Charlotte Collyer, told reporters: “On the boat deck that I had just left, perhaps 50 men had come together. In the midst of them was a tall figure … [who] climbed upon a chair or a coil of rope so that he was raised far above the rest. His hands were stretched out as if he were pronouncing a blessing. … Father Byles stood there leading those doomed men in prayer.”

The ship finally sank at about 2:20 a.m., its stern rising high in the air before plunging into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. None of the three priests was seen again. All had been offered places on lifeboats; all had declined.

Reading accounts of these events, it is easy to assume — or hope — that one would also act with such integrity. Yet, it is important to recall that in the ship’s last hour, the mood on board the Titanic became one of sheer terror. It is in this context that the witness of Fathers Byles, Peruschitz and Montvila needs to be pondered. The moment it became clear that the ship was doomed and there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers called for more than the courage of a hero; it called for the courage of a martyr.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me; Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee…

*****

K.V. TURLEY, a London-based writer, journalist and filmmaker, is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent.


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