Libertytown church commemorates Titanic victims

LIBERTYTOWN — — They stood in the sunshine, silent and praying for the souls of the 1,500 who lost their lives. The dozens gathered at St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church bowed their heads and tried to imagine those last desperate moments in the North Atlantic Ocean, 100 years ago.

"Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck," Kara Van Fleet, 15, read from the Psalms to the crowd assembled at the bottom of the church's sloped cemetery. "I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold."

A century ago, on April 15, the Titanic sank after it struck an iceberg 1,100 miles east of New York. "GIANT TITANIC GOES DOWN," read the headlines in Baltimore on April 16. "1,500 PERISH."

It was the "greatest of sea disasters," the papers declared.

Only a few days later, the little church in Frederick County would dedicate a memorial to the victims. It was believed to be the nation's first memorial to the Titanic's dead.

On Sunday, parishioners met at the memorial — a life-sized depiction of Jesus on the cross, accompanied by the Virgin Mary and John the Apostle — as people worldwide commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury ship. Among many events over the weekend, cruise ships held memorial services, and thousands gathered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was built.

In Libertytown, a quiet community surrounded by farmland, the Rev. Jason Worley asked the crowd to imagine all the prayers sent up as the Titanic plunged. He reminded them that the majestic ship had taken so long to build, and only hours to sink. It struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. April 14 and sank at 2:20 a.m.

"There's always something stronger than yourself," Worley said. "But there's always something else that you can hold onto, and that is God."

When the Titanic sank, St. Peter's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Kavanaugh, had been working to beautify the church's cemetery to honor the parish's dead, Worley said. The statue was already planned, and when the town got word of the disaster, the church decided to dedicate the monument to the Titanic victims. Kavanaugh had connections to some of the Titanic's passengers, Worley said.

About 100 people gathered at the statue for Sunday's memorial service, which began with a procession by the Knights of Columbus.

Frank Joy, a 78-year-old Frederick resident, recalled always seeing the memorial in the cemetery from his days as an altar boy at the parish, back when Mass was said in Latin.

Joy brought along a piece of his own family's connection to Titanic history. His family once lived in the home that is now the parish rectory. In 1912, his grandmother sent a photo of the church's memorial to Vincent Astor, the New York millionaire and son of Titanic victim John Jacob Astor IV.

In July of that year, the Astor family secretary wrote back to Joy's grandmother: "He appreciates very much your kindness in sending it to him."

Worley said no one knows for sure whether the memorial is the first. But the plaque beneath the statue reads April 19, 1912.

"Logic would say, four days afterward — not too many people were building monuments so close to the accident," Worley said.

The tragedy touched communities around Maryland, and residents grappled to understand its meaning. A week after the ship went down, church leaders tried to find lessons in the disaster as they addressed those gathered in the pews.

"The littleness and futility of men as compared with God is seen in this disaster," the Rev. Francis R. Bayley told members of Govans Methodist Episcopal Church, according to a newspaper article at the time.

A few weeks later, 35 women gathered at the Belvedere hotel to plan "a whirlwind campaign" to raise funds for a memorial to be built in Washington, D.C.

"Women all over the state will be asked to co-operate," a news article explained after that meeting.

The writer of a 1940 Baltimore Sun article mentioned the St. Peter's memorial in an article about Libertytown, described as "a little town that is quiet and peaceful and full of a wholesome restfulness, and is proud and glad to be a quiet town."

Today, "we have one traffic light that starts blinking at 9:30 at night," Worley said. "It really blows your mind to think that that event affected even the people in this little town."

A number of residents now don't know the church's part in Titanic history, Worley said.

For many of the church youth-group members at Sunday's service, their only prior exposure to the ship's history had been the 1997 movie "Titanic."

Van Fleet, who read the Psalms, said she hasn't yet seen the new 3D version released for the disaster's centennial.

"I love the movie and how it's a romantic tragedy," Van Fleet said. "And Leonardo DiCaprio is amazing."

Among other creative works the Titanic inspired was Baltimore native Walter Lord's book "A Night to Remember." Published in 1955, it helped renew the nation's interest in the ship.

Lord, who died a decade ago in New York City at age 84, described his fascination with the Titanic disaster in a 1998 interview with The Sun. It was a classic Greek tragedy, he said, "the allegory for the end of an era."

"It's a story that has it all," he said.