Father Thomas R. Byles

Second Class

Roman Catholic Priest

Born in Yorkshire on February 26, 1870, Roussel Davids Byles was the eldest of seven children born to Alfred Holden Byles and Louisa Davids.  Alfred Byles was a businessman and Congregational minister from a well-known prominent Protestant  family known for its social consciousness.

Highly intelligent and well-educated, Father Byles struggled with his faith and after much internal reflection, he converted to Catholicisim while at school in Oxford, England.  After his graduation in 1894, Byles continued his studies while teaching at various posts in Europe.  In 1899, he went to Rome to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1902. Upon entering the Church, Byles took the name of ‘Thomas’ thus being renamed as Father Thomas R. D. Byles.  In 1905, Father Byles was sent to the small church in Ongar, Essex.

Father Byles’ younger brother William also converted to Catholicism but moved to America and fell in love with Katherine Russell of Brooklyn, New York.   As wedding plans progressed, the couple asked Father Byles to officiate at their wedding, which was planned for the Sunday after his arrival from Southampton. Initially scheduled to travel on another White Star liner, Byles switched to Titanic at the last minute. In a letter he mailed from Cherbourg to his housekeeper, Byles commented on the size of the tenders bringing passengers from the French shore: “The tender is good sized, but by the side ofTitanic she looks as though we could lay her on deck without feeling any inconvenience.” 

As a Catholic priest, Father Byles offered mass on Sunday for the second- and then third-class passengers.  When the iceberg hit and the Ship started to sink, Father Byles calmly assisted passengers and offered confession and prayers.  Witnesses report that he refused to board the lifeboats but assisted others.  At the last, he continued to offered prayers with the unfortunates left on board to meet their fate.

William and Katherine did not postpone their wedding and were married by another priest.  Immediately after the ceremony, they changed to mourning clothes and attended a requiem mass for Father Byles.  At his home church of St. Helen, Ongar, a door and a stained glass window were placed in his memory.