Fr Hugh Allen, abbot of the Norbertines in Chelmsford, once told me that he had a devotion not to St John Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars”, but to the curé’s successor. The saint ate very little, spent most of his day hearing confessions, slept a few hours each night and prayed much. Imagine how the next curé felt when parishioners reminded him of the sanctity of his predecessor.
My bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Williams of Brentwood, recently reminded me that, according to most parishioners, the best parish priest is the one before you. I have this experience not only because my immediate predecessor – Fr Andrew Hurley – was indeed a saintly figure, but also because Fr Thomas Byles served in my parish of St Helen’s, Ongar. This man of heroic virtue ministered here from 1905 to 1912.
I had known nothing about Fr Byles, who died helping others off the Titanic, until my bishop asked me to go to Ongar, a village parish just outside Brentwood in Essex. When I heard the priest’s story, and was shown his picture and the stained-glass window dedicated to him in the small church, I thought more people should know about him. I asked whether anyone had taken his Cause to Rome to start the canonisation process. I was surprised to hear no one had.
It was then that I decided to petition the Vatican to start the process. I was still in my old parish then and knew someone who worked for the BBC. I told him about my interest in Fr Byles and he said they would like to cover the story. A taxi picked me up at 5am on the day I was moving to Ongar and dropped me off at the BBC studios. This was not my natural time to wake up, let alone travel. I was grilled on Radio 4’s Today programme by John Humphrys, who asked why I thought this man should be recognised as a saint. It was a good question.
Thomas was not Fr Byles’s given name. He was born Roussel Davids Byles in Leeds on February 26, 1870, to Louisa Davids and Alfred Holden Byles. He was the eldest of seven children. In 1889 he went to Balliol College, Oxford. There he converted to Catholicism, taking the name Thomas after his hero St Thomas Aquinas.
Having found the strain of studying for the priesthood at Oscott College too much for his health, he took a job as a master at St Edmund’s College in Ware, Hertfordshire, a boys’ school and seminary. In 1899 he travelled to Beda College in Rome, to resume studies for the priesthood. He graduated from the Gregorian University in 1901 and was ordained in June 1902, finishing his studies in the Eternal City the following year.
His younger brother William had also converted to Catholicism and had moved to America to run a rubber business. He asked Fr Byles to officiate at his wedding. So arrangements were made for the priest to travel to New York. He was initially supposed to travel on another White Star liner, but changed at the last minute to travel on the Titanic. His second-class ticket (number 244310) cost £13. He boarded the Titanic at Southampton on April 10, 1912.
On the morning of Sunday April 14, Fr Byles celebrated Mass and preached a homily which, according to the Evening World, was on the need to have a “lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck”. The following night, the Titanic struck the iceberg.
After the collision, Fr Byles helped the third-class passengers up the stairs and into the boats. He also heard confessions, and prayed and sang with those who couldn’t find a place on the lifeboats. (He had been offered a seat but refused.) Eyewitness Bertha Moran later recalled: “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.”
William Byles’s wedding went ahead. A Brooklyn newspaper reported that the bride and groom went home after the ceremony, changed into mourning clothes and returned to the church for a Requiem Mass for Fr Byles. Later that year the couple travelled to Rome, where they had a private audience with Pope Pius X, who declared Fr Byles a “martyr for the Church”.
A door installed by his family at my parish of St Helen’s in Ongar stands as a memorial to Fr Byles; a photograph of him also hangs here, alongside a beautiful stained-glass window of St Thomas Aquinas.
The canonisation process is a long and arduous one. The Church has to be sure that the person I would like to be known as a saint was indeed a holy man. From his letters, his own published book and the eyewitness accounts on the Titanic, I am convinced he is.
The Church must also establish whether Fr Byles has a cultus, which means that people ask for his prayers when in need. His life will soon be very well known. Brentwood diocesan archivist Fr Stewart Foster will publish a book about Fr Byles this year and a film is being made about him in America. His story has been on BBC One, ITV, EWTN and Radio 4. Prayer cards are being printed now which will be shipped around the world.
The Church will then ask if anyone has been genuinely cured through his intercession. Already I have received letters from Russia and Spain informing me of miraculous cures through his prayers. The next step will be for him to be declared a Servant of God. Then, please God, he will be beatified. Finally, I hope, he will be canonised and honoured as St Thomas Byles.
In that Radio 4 interview, John Humphrys asked me if I would have done the same as Fr Byles had I been in the same situation on the Titanic, to which I replied that I hoped I would. I believe that Fr Byles’s actions show us that heroic acts of virtue really do happen. He is an example of how selfless giving is possible even in times of serious distress. Such stories of heroism should be told and retold to inspire another generation to do what Jesus asked of all of us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
This article first appeared in the April 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.