By OSV staff - OSV Newsweekly, 4/15/2012
April 14/15, 1912, a glittering, technological marvel in the shape of a
ship called the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of
the sea in the icy waters in the North Atlantic, killing more than 1,500
people and capturing the imaginations of people over the past 100
books, museum exhibits and movies have told the story of the supposedly
unsinkable ocean liner, including the
Oscar-winning 1997 film “Titanic,”
recently re-released in theaters in a 3D format. Even the popular PBS
series “Downton Abbey,” set in Edwardian England, features the sinking
of the Titanic in its plot line.
Most people know at least the
basic story of what happened to the Titanic on her maiden voyage from
Southampton, England to New York, but they may not realize the role
three Catholic priests — a Lithuanian, a German and an Englishman —
played in bringing comfort to passengers of the doomed ship.
celebrated Mass every day while on board the ship, but it was their
heroism and the spiritual care they gave to the passengers literally
until the end that has been remembered.
Serving ‘to the very end’
Father Juozas Montvila, 27, a native of Lithuania, boarded at Southampton on a second-class ticket.
Montvila was headed to the United States, where he had family, after
suffering at the hands of the Russians, who controlled Lithuania at the
time. When it was discovered he was serving Ukrainian Catholics, who
were in disfavor with the government of Czar Nicholas II, the Russians
prohibited him from performing his priestly ministry. In the United
States, Father Montvila believed, he could serve the growing Lithuanian
On the fatal night, Father Montvila was on the boat
deck as the 20 lifeboats on board — far too few for the 2,200 passengers
aboard — were filled. A survivor reported, “the young Lithuanian
priest, Juozas Montvila, served his calling to the very end.” He was
offered a place in one of the boats, but he refused to go. His body was
Praying the Rosary
He had entered the Benedictine community at Scheyern in 1894. On April 28, 1895, he was ordained a priest by the archbishop of Munich-Freising in the parish church in Scheyern. He made his profession as a Benedictine on Aug. 24, 1895.
In 1912, he was on his way to join the faculty at St. John’s Abbey — now St. John’s University — in Collegeville, Minn. He spent Holy Week at St. Augustine’s Benedictine house in Ramsgate, England, before boarding the Titanic on April 10 at Southampton. The ocean liner departed later that day, stopping in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before crossing the Atlantic.
Father Peruschitz went among passengers after the ship hit the iceberg, giving absolution. Some people on deck reportedly mocked him and the other priests. But the priests continued to pray with those who asked for prayer, not only Catholics but people of all faiths.
Father Peruschitz also was offered a place in a lifeboat, but he declined to leave the other passengers. One survivor recalled seeing him shortly before the sinking, leading a group of passengers in the Rosary. Like his Lithuanian counterpart, his body was never recovered.
At the Scheyern monastery, a plaque memorializes Father Peruschitz’s life and sacrifice. It reads, “Father Joseph Peruschitz, OSB, who sacrificed himself piously on the famous ‘Titanic’ on 15.4.1912 at the age of 42 years in the 17th year of his priesthood and profession.”
Father Thomas Roussel Davids Byles, 42, came from a prominent family in England and was the son of a Congregationalist minister. While at Oxford, he was received into the Church of England. Originally intending to become an Anglican priest, he converted to Catholicism in 1894 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1902.
On April 14, the day that would end with the accident, Father Byles celebrated Mass twice — once for second-class passengers and a later one for third-class passengers.
Most third-class passengers were immigrants to America, mainly from Ireland, so they would have understood English. Many others, however, were from continental Europe. Father Byles preached his third-class homily in English and French, and Father Peruschitz followed with a sermon in German and Hungarian. According to a newspaper report at the time, both priests preached about “the necessity of man having a lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of a spiritual shipwreck.”
When the collision with the iceberg came, Father Byles returned to third-class cabins. Survivors recall that he pointed third-class passengers to exits from lower decks or into the boats. He heard confessions. He prayed with anxious passengers.
According to newspaper reports, Father Byles too was offered a seat in a departing lifeboat, but he refused to leave the other passengers. He died with the ship and his body was never recovered.
A memorial to Father Byles was erected at his parish in Chipping Ongar, Essex, England.
Portions of this piece were adapted from Msgr. Owen F. Campion’s April 17, 2005, In Focus titled “Priestly sacrifice at sea.”