The Titanic, Fr Francis Browne and Fr Willie Doyle

One hundred years ago this weekend, the Titanic sank with the loss of 1,514 lives. There is, understandably, a lot of media interest in the event. While it is historically interesting to remember the disaster on this centenary anniversary, we must not forget to pray for these 1,514 souls, even if they died over 100 years ago.

A lot of the coverage, in Ireland at least, has mentioned Fr Francis Browne S.J., and rightly so. For those who do not know, Fr Browne (or Br Browne, as he then was) was a passenger on board the Titanic as it sailed from Southampton to Cobh. He was due to leave the ship at Cobh, but some wealthy passengers offered to pay for his ticket all the way to the US. He telegraphed his provincial for permission, but he received a short and terse message in reply – “Get off that ship”. Religious obedience saved his life. Fr Browne is significant in the Titanic story because he was an enthusiastic photographer, and he took the only photographs of the Titanic at sea. In fact, some of his photos are the only photos we have of certain rooms on the Titanic.

 You may read more about this aspect of Fr Browne’s life here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0407/1224314477220.html

Fr Francis Browne SJ

Fr Browne played an important role in Fr Doyle’s life – they were together in the schools at Clongowes and Belvedere, but in particular they worked together as military chaplains in World War I, and they had great esteem for each other. I have been told that, so great was Fr Browne’s respect for Fr Doyle, that he kept a pair of Fr Doyle’s shoes as a relic and only ever wore them while saying Mass.

O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle recounts a touching scene in which both priests arose exhausted, at 1am on Corpus Christi, June 7 1917, to say Mass before moving off to the front line. Fr Doyle, who was older and senior to Fr Browne, made a resolution to ask Fr Browne to treat him like a slave, so that he could experience occasions for perfecting the virtue of humility. It’s not known if Fr Browne took him up on this offer!

Fr Browne and Fr Doyle used to relieve each other at the front line, and would hear each other’s confessions whenever they swapped over. Here is Fr Browne’s description of this arrangement:

During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days. I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away. He knew how I hated it — and I did not hate it half as much as he did. We used generally to confess each other before leaving. We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.

However, Fr Browne was appointed chaplain to a different group of soldiers on August 2 1917, but due to a mix up his replacement never showed up. This meant that Fr Doyle had double the work with no rest and was the only chaplain to 4 Battalions from August 2 to his death on August 16, and that during some of the worst days of battle. Fr Doyle commented on this loss of Fr Browne’s company in these terms:

The Battalion went out to-day for three days’ rest, but I remained behind. Fr. Browne has gone back to the Irish Guards. He is a tremendous loss, not only to myself personally, but to the whole Brigade where he did magnificent work and made a host of friends. And so I was left alone.

Here is some of Fr Browne’s testimony about Fr Doyle, written on August 15 1917, just a day before Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: — ‘Little Fr. Doyle’ — they all call him that, more in affection than anything else — ‘deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery’. Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again.’

I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.

Fr Browne was also there for Fr Doyle’s last homily – Fr Browne said Mass and Fr Doyle preached at the Mass in late July 1917 in front of 2,500 Irish soldiers in the church at St. Omer in France. Here is Fr Browne’s account of Fr Doyle’s homily:

From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O’Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

When Fr Browne heard of Fr Doyle’s death, he wrote the following in a letter on August 20: 

All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.

And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.

And so back to the Titanic…I read with interest last week the story of three different priests – a German, a Lithuanian and an Englishman, who stayed on board the Titanic to minister to those who were inevitably going to die. Like Fr Doyle who died while trying to minister to wounded soldiers, these three priests, by refusing to get into lifeboats, gave up their lives to serve others. What a powerful witness and example of heroic charity. Surely the cause of these “Titanic martyrs of charity” should be introduced? You may read more about them here:

Father Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz: http://www.kloster-scheyern.de/01-benediktiner/Titanic/Eng_schicksal_titanic.htm

Father Juozas Montvila http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/juozas-montvila.html

Father Thomas Byles: www.fatherbyles.com

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