RELIGION
04/13/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2015

English Church Wants To Make Priest Who Died On Titanic A Saint

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Catholics in Essex, England, are working to give sainthood to a priest who died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, recalling his humility and sacrifice aboard the fated vessel.

Father Thomas Byles was among the 1,500 passengers who went down with the ship that April morning.

"He's an extraordinary man who gave his life for others," Father Graham Smith, the priest of St Helen's Church in Essex, where Byles served as rector, told BBC. "We need, in very old parlance, to raise him to the altar, which means that the Vatican will recognize him as a martyr of the church. We are hoping and praying that he will be recognized as one of the saints within our canon."

Multiple sources report that according to survivors' accounts, Byles refused several opportunities to escape into a lifeboat as the ship was going down, preferring to stay on board to take confessions, pray with passengers and help others into lifeboats.

The website of the Ongar & Doddinghurst parish, where St Helen's Church is located, states:

When the Titanic struck the priest was on the upper deck walking backwards and forwards reading his office, the daily prayers which form part of the duties of every Roman Catholic priest. After the real danger was apparent, Father Byles went among the passengers, hearing confessions of some and giving absolution. At the last he was the centre of a group on the deck where the steerage passengers had been crowded, and was leading in the recitation of the rosary.

Born Roussel Davids Byles on Feb. 26, 1870, to a Protestant family in Yorkshire, England, Byles assumed the name Thomas when he was baptized in the Catholic Church on May 23, 1894. He served as rector at St Helen's for eight years before boarding the Titanic to attend his younger brother William's wedding in New York, according to the St Edmund's College & Prep School's Edmundian Association.

Several months after the ship sank, William and his new bride traveled to Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Pius X, who praised Byles' actions and declared him a martyr, the Edmundian Association reports.

The path to sainthood can be a long one, noted Jesuit priest James Martin, requiring that two miracles be attributed to the deceased person.

"The process begins at the local level, and then continues with a Vatican investigation into a person's life," Martin told The Huffington Post. "But surely giving your life for others, or providing spiritual comfort in the face of certain death, should qualify a person to be, at the very least, considered for canonization."

Smith told BBC he encourages believers to pray to Byles so the required miracles can occur.

"We hope people around the world will pray to him if they are in need," he said, "and, if a miracle occurs, then beatification and then canonization can go forward."

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