This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the world’s most famous and ill-fated ocean liner, Titanic. Among the lesser known stories surrounding the steamship’s last days is the fascinating tale of Irish Jesuit Father Francis Browne, whose photographs are some of the only surviving images of life onboard the luxury liner during its first, and final, voyage.
Fr. Browne sailed the first leg of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, between Southampton, England and Cobh, Ireland — taking a series of black-and-white photos of life onboard the opulent ship. He planned to stay on the ship to New York but was ordered by his Jesuit superior to return home instead.
That order saved his life. After striking an iceberg on April 15, 1912, the Titanic took 1,500 people to a watery grave miles below the surface of the Atlantic.
Fr. Browne survived, as did his photographs, which were rediscovered in 1985 by a fellow priest.
Fr. Browne’s absorbing photographic record of the Titanic is documented in the book “Father Browne’s Titanic Album: Centenary Edition,” which has been rereleased by Ireland’s Messenger Publications to coincide with the anniversary.
The new edition of the book is edited by Jesuit Father Edward O’Donnell, and the foreword is written by Robert Ballard, who first located the ship’s wreckage in September 1985, the same month as a chance finding of 42,000 of Fr. Browne’s photographs in the basement of the Jesuits’ headquarters in Dublin.
Because of the remarkable documentation they provide of life on the ocean liner, Fr. Browne’s photographs were used as historic references during the set design process for the film “Titanic.” Fr. Browne’s images have also been studied by maritime historians and engineers eagerly seeking answers to a tragedy that still grips the public’s imagination.
While onboard, the self-taught photographer managed to obtain pictures of the Titanic’s first-class accommodation and dining rooms as well as gymnasium and library. He also captured passengers enjoying a stroll on the promenade, as well as many passengers in third class, recording some of those who would later perish in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. He took the last image of the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith.
Fr. Browne’s story is as amazing as his unique photos. In 1912, the Jesuit novice was still three years from ordination. But because of a gift from his uncle, he was able to experience the Titanic’s luxurious accommodation during the initial stages of its maiden voyage.
The young Jesuit photographed the Titanic leaving port for the last time as it left Queenstown, in County Cork, for New York. He could have been onboard: an American couple he befriended on the ship offered to fund the final leg of the journey to New York.
From the Titanic, Fr. Browne sent a telegram to his provincial in Dublin requesting permission to stay onboard. However, a frosty telegram awaited him in Queenstown: “Get off that ship.”
When news of the Titanic’s disastrous fate reached Fr. Browne, he folded the telegram, put it into his wallet and kept it there for the rest of his life. He later said it was the only time holy obedience had saved a life.
You can see some of Fr. Browne’s photographs via this link to FoxNews.com.
You can listen to an audio interview from the Jesuits of the Irish Province with Fr. Edward O’Donnell, who found Fr. Browne’s collection, here.
Messenger Publication’s book “Father Browne’s Titanic Album: Centenary Edition,” can be purchased at their website.