When holy obedience saved a priest’s life

It happened, incredibly, when he followed his superior’s order to get off the Titanic.

The story of Jesuit Fr. Frank Browne:

When Derry priest Fr. Eddie O’Donnell stumbled across over 40,000 negatives belonging to the late Fr. Frank Browne he would not have been able to envisage the significance of what he had just discovered.

Fr. Browne, a Jesuit priest, was widely recognised as a skilled photographer. He boarded the Titanic in Southampton and several days later he was ordered off the boat in Cobh, Co. Cork by his superior.

Fr. O’Donnell was born in Dublin but was reared for the first few years of his life in 106 Bogside (close to where the Little Diamond is now) after the death of his mother. He spent summers visiting aunts, uncles and cousins in Derry before joining the Jesuits.

Fr O’Donnell discovered the invaluable collection of photographs and mementoes in a Dublin basement in 1985. His book ‘Father Browne’s Titanic Album’ has been updated and re-released to mark the 100th anniversary of the boat sinking in 1912…

…Perhaps the most famous story about Fr. Browne on the Titanic was when an American couple offered to pay his fare to America. Unbeknownst to Fr. Browne, when his superior requested that he return to Dublin, his life was potentially saved.

“While he was having a meal in the first class dining room he got chatting to a wealthy American couple. They liked Fr. Browne and asked him to stay on the Titanic with them until the boat reached New York. The American couple even offered to pay the rest of his fare to New York but Fr. Browne told them that his superior in Dublin would never allow it so he had to get off the ship when it stopped in Cobh.

“The American man said to Fr. Browne, ‘come on down to the Marconi room and we’ll send him [the Jesuit superior] a Marconigram (a message sent via radio) and we’ll tell him that we’ll pay your way to New York’.

“When Fr. Browne went down to the Marconi room he took a picture. It was the only picture to be taken of the room – and any films you’ve ever seen that have had the Marconi room in it based it on Fr. Browne’s photograph.”

The telegram was sent by the wealthy Americans to the Irish superior of the Jesuits but after the Titanic stopped in Queenstown in Cobh, Fr. Browne was instructed to return to Dublin.

“The water near Queenstown in Cobh wasn’t deep enough for the Titanic to dock so the only way it could be reached was by another boat called the Ireland.

“The Ireland set off towards the Titanic with bags of mail and the 123 Irish passengers who boarded the ship. Captain Tobin was in charge of the Ireland and he had a small envelope addressed to Fr. Browne. Inside was a note with five words on it – it read: ‘Get Off That Ship – Provincial’.

“Fr. Browne kept the note in his wallet for the rest of his life and said that it was the only time that holy obedience saved a man’s life,” he laughs.

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13 responses to “When holy obedience saved a priest’s life”

  1. What is amazing is the long interesting life of Father Browne. Saved by his obedience, he went on to experience the horrors of WWI and photograph it; wounded five times in action. Died in 1960 at age 80 (the year I was born). Interesting post.

  2. That is an amazing story and I say that as a Titanic buff. Never heard it before. Too bad it’s not in the movie.

    Obedience can be a double edged sword and there is of course no shortage of examples where bad clergy members have used it for ill purposes.

  3. Kevin this is about “Holy Obedience”, that to which all all of us are called. No holy obedience could possibly ever be used for “ill” purposes.

    Thumbs up to Father James Martin!

  4. I’ve been interested in the Titanic for many years; even before the ship was locaed by Dr. Ballard in 1985. This story is one of my favorites.

    A couple of interesting things to note. Fr. Browne had not yet in fact been ordained when he took his trip on the Titanic. Also, he was the nephew of the Bishop who ordered him to return home. It is speculated that the trip was a gift of the bishop, along with the camera, out of funds received from a lawsuit the Bishop successfully prosecuted against a newspaper who had defamed the local Church.

    Titanic buffs keep hoping that among the 40,000 photos of Fr. Browne might be found a few more from the ship — perhaps damaged or double-exposed, but worth publication for study.

  5. Fascinating story!
    According to the article, it was the Jesuit provincial who told him to “Get off that ship.”

    So, his uncle, who paid for his first class passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic from Southhampton to Cherbourg and Cobh was a bishop. Hmm… nice having such a rich and generous uncle.

    I found this addendum to the story:

  6. Monsignor Ralph Kotheimer from Canton, Ohio was supposed to be on the Titanic, but they would not give him a room to say daily mass in, so he cancelled.

  7. Freddy
    I want to take back my snarky comment about Fr. Francis Browne’s “rich” uncle, Bishop Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne, County Cork. I did a little digging and discovered that the good bishop raised his nephew, Francis, whose mother died a few days after his birth and whose father died when he was nine years old. (Surprising that Francis joined the Jesuits and not the diocesan clergy at Maynooth, where his uncle had been president.)

    Bishop Browne completed the building of St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. A nun who taught me and whose religious name was Colman, told me that it was the last place that an Irish emigrating to the U.S. attended Mass on Irish soil, since most left from the port of Cobh.

    One-fourth of my family heritage comes from the O’Driscoll clan of Cork.

  8. Yes, I didn’t think the Bishop was a particularly wealthy man, although as a Bishop he would have been wealthier than many of his flock. In fact, as I mentioned, the money for his nephew’s trip was thought to be from proceeds from a legal case. The good Bishop was too much the gentleman to profit (in money) directly from winning a legal battle. The restoration of the good name of his diocese was apparently enough for him.

    You have an interesting family history!

  9. Brother Rolf,
    There are many people who claim to have been booked on the Titanic, but who cancelled or were prevented at the last minute. These claims are, understandably, hard to document and only a few have been verified.

    There were other priests travelling aboard Titanic; their stories are of good and faithful men who upheld the Faith and ministered to souls until the end. I doubt these men would have forgone their duty to say Mass for the comforts of the great ship. Indeed, White Star line, although as an English ship only had “official” services in the Anglican religion was known to accomodate other faiths and I have seen a picture of a room in one of their ships said to have been set up for a Catholic Mass, from I believe the 1920’s.

    If Msgr. Kotheimer had planned on travelling on the Titanic and changed his mind, I suggest it was for another reason. If you have any documentation to his plans — for example, was he known to be in England, Ireland or France at the right time, are there tickets or documents placing him in the right areas or communication with White Star Line, I’d be fascinated to see it. It would be a great find and an addition to the Titanic story!

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