When Violet Jessop set out to be a maritime stewardess, she wasn’t driven by some starry-eyed desire to see the world. She was moved by necessity.
Her Irish father, a sheep farmer, had died of complications from surgery, and then her mother’s health deteriorated. Violet, 17, the firstborn of nine, resolved to become the breadwinner. She was a devout Catholic, formed by convent school and committed to prayer. She was also a striking beauty: With her auburn hair swept back, her grey-blue eyes sparkled, set off by a petite nose and regal cheekbones.
Violet logged 17-hour days as a cabin stewardess for the White Star Line – making beds, sweeping, picking up clothes and tending to sick passengers. She kept a rosary in her apron, guided daily by her Catholic faith.
In 1911, she was on board the Olympic, the largest civilian luxury liner, when it collided with a British warship. Despite holes in its hull, the Olympic managed to return to port.
Violet was undeterred.
She was reassigned to the White Star’s newest ship, the Titanic, and set sail less than a year later. The 24-year-old befriended crew members and passengers. On the fourth night, she noticed a chill in the air and retired early, hunkering down with a batch of British fashion magazines.
Just then, she recalled a Hebrew prayer given to her by an old Irishwoman who had urged her to pray it. It was a prayer for protection against fire and water.
Why had she taken so long to pray it?
“My conscience smote me,” Violet later wrote.
She pulled out the prayer card and earnestly prayed it. Then she began drifting off to sleep, jolted by a loud crash.
Violet knew it was ominous.
Her job was to appear calm, reassuring passengers they would be fine.
An officer ordered her into lifeboat 16 to show others it was safe. As the boat was lowered, he shouted, “Look after this, will you?” A bundle was dropped on her lap. A baby!
Violet comforted the crying baby and prayed, icy air blasting her face “like a knife.”
Eight hours later, when they were rescued by the Carpathia, a woman grabbed the baby and ran off. Violet never heard from her again.
Safe on land, Violet didn’t debate her next step. “I knew that if I meant to continue my sea life, I would have to return at once,” she wrote in her memoir. “Otherwise, I would lose my nerve.”
And so she did, but life looked different. “I saw people and their aims with extraordinary clarity,” Violet wrote. “Famous names and possessions no longer moved me.”
She trained as a nurse for the Red Cross; and four years after the Titanic crash, she found herself on its sister ship, the Britannic. An explosion sank the ship within an hour. Violet made it into a lifeboat but came close to dying when it was nearly sucked underwater by the Britannic’s propeller blades. She jumped into the water to escape the vortex, and her head was struck by the ship’s keel. A doctor later diagnosed it as a skull fracture.
Violet continued to work on the sea until her 1950 retirement when she could finally enjoy a quiet life in a thatched cottage in the English countryside. She died of natural causes in 1971 at age 83.
Her story speaks to us now as we look back at 2020, a year that delivered more than one crisis in succession. As we process the fear and the loss, may we follow Violet’s lead: We pray, we trust, we sail again. We try to make our corner of the ship a little better by being faithful and kind. And we hope that God is directing us to calmer waters.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.