On 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 years. 

The White Star Line’s RMS Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York on April 10, 1912. Newscom photo

Many 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. 

Each 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’

Priest Montvila
Father Montvila

Father Juozas Montvila, 27, a native of Lithuania, boarded at Southampton on a second-class ticket. 

Father 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 community. 

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 never recovered. 

Praying the Rosary

Benedictine Father Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz, 41, also was a second-class passenger on the Titanic.  

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.” 

Aiding passengers

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. 

Priest Byes
Father Byes

In April 1912, Father Byles was on his way to Brooklyn, N.Y., to officiate at his brother’s wedding. He, too, embarked at Southampton as a second-class passenger. 

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.”