I was planning on doing several entries on Saint Peter’s Basilica, but a friend sent me a link to a page about Catholic priests on the Titanic and I thought I would distill the information and pass it on to you. I have always been fascinated by the Titanic. When I was a child we had a housekeeper who had a ticket for passage on the Titanic. She was a young girl emigrating from Ireland to the United States and had purchased a berth in steerage. In one of those bizarre twists of luck, she gave it up for a cousin to come in her place. The cousin did not survive. In the next entry I will write about a Jesuit who was on the Titanic who had a similar twist of luck. But for now, brief stories about the three priests who were on the ship and went down with it.
Father Juozas Montvila was a Byzantine Rite Catholic Priest from Lithuania. Father Montvila was only 29 years old and had been ordained just over four years. Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire and Eastern Rite Catholics were persecuted in an attempt to force them to renounce the Pope and become subject to the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Montvila was also a proponent of Lithuanan nationalism and the preservation of the Lithuanian language—actions which the Czarist officials saw as treasonous. He was a gifted artist and provided the illustrations for various nationalist magazines, books, and newspapers. In trouble with the Russian overlords for his patriotic activities and pastoral work, Fahter Montvila decided to emigrate to the United States to work among Lithuanian emigrants in New York. He travelled to England where he bought a ticket for the Titanic. He was offered a place in the lifeboats but refused in favor of giving the place to another. His cause for canonization has been proposed by the Church in Lithuania.
Father Joseph Peruschitz was a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Scheyern in Bavaria. He was forty-one years old and had been a priest and a monk seventeen years. He was on his way to Saint John’s Abbey on Collegeville Minnesota where he was serve as headmaster of the monks’ prep-school. On Sunday morning, April 14th—the day the Titanic would hit the iceberg—Father Joseph said Mass for German and Hungarian speaking passengers in the third class lounge.
Father Thomas Byles was a convert to the faith—his father was a Congregationalist Minister in Leeds England. His brother William had preceded him into the Church and had also tried his vocation—as a Jesuit. William had not persisted in the seminary, however, left, emigrated to the United States, and fallen in love. Thomas was on his way to New York to officiate at his brother’s wedding. Father Byles was on the upper deck of the Titanic reciting his breviary when the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40 pm that night. He had celebrated Mass that morning in the Second Class Lounge, preaching in English and French. After the collision, Father Byles went to the steerage passengers and helped keep them calm and lead them up to the open decks where he and Father Peruschitz prayed the rosary with them. Like Father Montvila, Fathers Byles and Peruschitz declined places in the lifeboats. As waves came over the stern, Father Byles gave general absolution to the vast crowd, mostly of steerage passengers, gathered around him and Father Peruschitz.