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Devotion to a heroic priest who died on the Titanic is growing


Fr Thomas Byles, I am convinced, was a holy man. And miracles are already being attributed to his intercession.

Fr Hugh Allen, abbot of the Norbertines in Chelmsford, once told me that he had a devotion not to St John Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars”, but to the curé’s successor. The saint ate very little, spent most of his day hearing confessions, slept a few hours each night and prayed much. Imagine how the next curé felt when parishioners reminded him of the sanctity of his predecessor.

My bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Williams of Brentwood, recently reminded me that, according to most parishioners, the best parish priest is the one before you. I have this experience not only because my immediate predecessor – Fr Andrew Hurley – was indeed a saintly figure, but also because Fr Thomas Byles served in my parish of St Helen’s, Ongar. This man of heroic virtue ministered here from 1905 to 1912.

I had known nothing about Fr Byles, who died helping others off the Titanic, until my bishop asked me to go to Ongar, a village parish just outside Brentwood in Essex. When I heard the priest’s story, and was shown his picture and the stained-glass window dedicated to him in the small church, I thought more people should know about him. I asked whether anyone had taken his Cause to Rome to start the canonisation process. I was surprised to hear no one had.

It was then that I decided to petition the Vatican to start the process. I was still in my old parish then and knew someone who worked for the BBC. I told him about my interest in Fr Byles and he said they would like to cover the story. A taxi picked me up at 5am on the day I was moving to Ongar and dropped me off at the BBC studios. This was not my natural time to wake up, let alone travel. I was grilled on Radio 4’s Today programme by John Humphrys, who asked why I thought this man should be recognised as a saint. It was a good question.

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