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Kathryn Swegart shares the story of Father Francis Browne, an Irish priest whose obedience to his superiors saved him from death on the doomed Titanic.

How blessed I was this summer to visit Ireland with my husband. We joined 22 other Americans on a Catholic pilgrimage, visiting towering cathedrals and the crumbling ruins of monasteries and castles. 

One of my favorite stops was the coastal village of Cobh, famed as the last stop of the ill-fated Titanic on her maiden voyage. Situated near the pier is a small museum filled with photos of the ship, depicting life aboard the luxury ship. To my surprise, I learned that these rare photos of the Titanic were taken by a Jesuit priest, Father Francis Browne.  




The discovery of his photos is a story in itself. Browne’s negatives were hidden away until 1985: seventy-three years after the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. More than fifteen hundred passengers perished in the disaster.  

The details are fuzzy regarding the discovery of the photographic negatives. Another priest named Eddie O’Connell rummaged through a basement in Dublin. I doubt he was looking for treasure. He opened a trunk and found 40,000 negatives; among them were images depicting the Titanic in all its glory. 

Father Browne was a gifted photographer who cruised on the majestic vessel from Southampton, England to Cobh, Ireland. His photos captured life aboard ship. It truly was a floating palace. Musicians played as patrons waltzed. It had a workout room complete with a rowing machine. Sitting rooms were adorned with pillars and oriental rugs. 

During that short trip, Father Browne dined with a wealthy American couple. Evidently, they were charmed by Father Browne and offered to pay his fare for a vacation in America. Eager to accept their invitation, he climbed below deck to the Marconi room and sent a telegraph to his superior, asking permission to make a transatlantic voyage on the Titanic. 




His answer came a short time later. Mail bags were ferried in a small boat out to the luxury ship anchored in the harbor. Inside the bag was a message for the priest. It read, “Get off that ship—the Provincial.” 

Now if that was not good advice, I can’t imagine what else would qualify. Father Browne gathered up his bags, thanked the American couple for their generous offer, and returned to shore. Four days later the Titanic slammed into an iceberg and sank. 


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Father Francis Browne believed that obedience saved his life.


I will always remember Father Browne’s story. How well it illustrates the importance of following the guidance of respected friends, family members, and colleagues. Father Browne surely was disappointed that he could not engage in an oceanic adventure. He might have even sighed as he reluctantly left the ship. Notice that he did not question the note. He simply obeyed. 

Father Francis Browne believed that obedience saved his life. How do we know? He folded up the message from his superior and kept it in his wallet for the rest of his life. 

You can view Father Browne's photos of the Titanic at TitanicMuseum.org.




Copyright 2023 Kathryn Swegart
Images: (top, bottom) Canva; (2 center photos) copyright 2023 Kathryn Swegart, all rights reserved.