Sunday, April 15, 2012

Husbands and Wives, Little Children Lost Their Lives--More on the Titanic

One of Father Browne's photographs
showing third class passengers aboard
the Titanic
To commeorate the centenary of the Titanic I have a story about an almost-priest who, unlike the three priests who went down with the ship (see blog entry for April 14) got safely off the ship--long before it met the iceberg--and lived to tell about it.  In fact, we owe many of our photos of the Titanic to this Jesuit seminarian.  Father Francis Browne wasn’t yet ordained at the time of his voyage on the Titanic—he was a Jesuit scholastic returning  to Dublin from England.  Browne was an orphan who had been raised by his uncle, Robert Browne, the Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland.  Bishop Browne was very indulgent towards his Jesuit nephew and even before the young man had entered the Jesuits had bought him a camera—something expensive and rather rare at the time, and, given the complexity of the photographic processes in the early 20th century, something for professionals.  But Jesuits always become professional what whatever skill in which they develop an interest and Frank Browne combined a photographer’s natural eye with Jesuit enthusiasm to become a world-class photographer who would gain a reputation for his skill with a camera. 
       His Lordship, as Irish Bishops are still called, also bought the young Jesuit a 1st class passage (Bishops and Jesuits don’t know that there is any other kind) on the overnight voyage of the Titanic from Southampton via Cherbourg to Queenstown (now Cobh) where his Episcopal palace and Cathedral stood.  The ship left Southampton at noon on April 11th, touched at Cherbourg and departed from there at 8:30 pm and continued on to Queenstown, the port of Cork, arriving at 11:30 am on the 12th.  It would anchor there less than two hours, picking up mail and passengers for hte final leg of its maiden voyage.   At dinner on the evening of the 11th off Cherbourg, Frank Browne was seated with an American couple who were so charmed by him that they offered to buy his passage the rest of the way to the New York.  This sort of thing used to happen to Jesuits all the time before they got into Justice and Peace; now it is mostly the Legionaires of Christ and Opus Dei who know how to work the well-to-do.  Of course Browne needed permission from his superiors and so he hopefully cabled for permission.  When the ship docked in Queenstown, Browne was handed the answer: a cable from his Provincial saying GET OFF THAT SHIP--Provincial.  Browne was understandably disappointed—for a few days.  After the ship had met its fate, Browne folded the telegram and carried it in his pocket for the rest of his life.  Unanswered prayers…    
       The Bishop had also given his nephew a letter of introduction to the Titanic’s bursar, Hugh McElroy.  Under McElroy’s patronage, Browne had the run of the ship and spent most of his short time aboard taking pictures—passengers, crew, the gymnasium, the first class dining saloon, his cabin, and, most important, the Marconi room where was the wireless that three days later would send out the calls for help.  Browne’s photo of the Marconi room is the only photograph of that room.  When Browne disembarked at Queenstown his camera came with him of course so thanks a Jesuit Provincial’s terse order we have the final surviving photographs of the Titanic.
      Browne has another claim to fame.  A classmate at the Royal University of Ireland of James Joyce, he is figured in Finnegan’s Wake as Mr. Browne, the Jesuit. 

1 comment:

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