How Holy Obedience Saved a Priest's Life on Titanic

Jesuit’s iconic photos comprise the most comprehensive collection of photographs that exist of the ill-fated ship 100 years later.

Photo Father Frank Browne took of Titanic when boarding the ship in Southampton, England.
Photo Father Frank Browne took of Titanic when boarding the ship in Southampton, England. (photo: Facebook)

It was the find of a lifetime: While cataloging the archives of a Dublin Jesuit residence, Father Eddie O’Donnell discovered an intriguing antique steamer truck in the cellar.

The treasures inside: 42,500 of Father Frank Browne’s captioned negatives — the most comprehensive collection of Titanic photographs that exist. (I would suggest listening to this Vatican Radio  interview of Father O’Donnell discussing some of the more fascinating aspects of Father Browne’s life and how his photography serves as a resource for Titanic research.) Father Browne's Titanic Album: Centenary Edition is available through Messenger Publications.

Father Browne (1880-1960) was an Irish Jesuit priest and master photographer who had a truly exceptional experience of the Titanic during its maiden voyage in April 1912. While aboard the famed liner, Father Browne took many important photographs that have provided essential information about the ship and its fate.

According to the radio interview with Father O'Donnell, critics describe Father Browne as a "master photographer with an unerring eye and the Irish equivalent of Cartier-Bresson." Recognized for their artistic quality, his photographs have been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

When Father O'Donnell showed the negatives to the features editor of the London Sunday Times, the editor said they were "the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Father Browne’s Jesuit training began in 1897 in the novitiate and at the Royal University of Ireland (where James Joyce was a classmate; he later referenced him as “Father Browne, the Jesuit” in Finnegans Wake). He then took courses in philosophy and theology from 1911 to 1916. An uncle gave him a ticket on the RMS Titanic as a gift, with passage from Southampton, England, to Cork, Ireland.

The ship's itinerary was from Southampton to Cherbourg, France, to Queenstown, Ireland, then on to final port of call in New York City.

During his voyage to Ireland, the priest befriended an American couple who were so impressed with the young man that they offered to pay his remaining fare and expenses to New York. Father Browne declined their generous offer, explaining that his superior would not allow it.

Not quick to give up, they suggested he send a message to inquire if he could accept. So he telegraphed his superior and received five words in reply: “GET OFF THAT SHIP — PROVINCIAL.”

So he disembarked in Ireland, and the Titanic continued on to its tragic end. (Read about the heroism of Catholic priests onboard the ship here.)

In the years that followed the tragedy, he was known to jest that this is the only time when holy obedience has been known to have saved a man’s life.

In another peculiar twist of fate — or Providence — Father Browne’s Titanic portfolio was discovered in 1985, the same year that Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic wreckage on the seabed.

Jennifer Roche writes from Wisconsin.