A visit with Saint Pius X, March 1912: Maj. Archie W. Butt letters from Rome

A little celebration the Feast of Saint Joseph — and Pope Saint Piux X’s birthday — from 1912

In February of 1912, President William Howard Taft’s Aide-de-Camp (ADC) and persona confidante, Major Archibald “Archie” Willingham Butt, much beleaguered by the bitter and divisive primary election challenge against Taft by Major Butt’s prior White House boss, Theodore Roosevelt. Butt respected Roosevelt and treasured his time with him in the White House as ADC, but he had come to respect and love Taft the man, and gave Taft his complete loyalty.

But that February, Butt was exhausted, and Taft insisted he join an artist friend, Francis Millet, who was heading to Italy on business. “I am completely tuckered out, and the doctor advises me to take a rest,” the Major confessed to his aunt. He continue,

I hate to leave the Big White Chief just at this time, though I will be back before the middle of April. I have come to the conclusion that if I am to go through this frightful summer I must have a rest now.

Butt, Letters, Feb 23, 1923 p. 847.

The press caught wind of the trip and put it out that “Major Butt On Sick Leave: President’s Aid Going Abroad to Recuperate His Health.” (New York Times, March 1, 1912). But, later in the month, when they found out that Butt was to visit the Vatican rumors flew about a secret pact between Taft and the Pope. The Sunday, April 14, 1912 New York Times tried to calm the issue and reported that there was no conspiracy, just dinner-party diplomacy. According to a “Veteran Diplomat,” the paper claimed, “Ostensibly he was worn out by his arduous duties at the White House, but really he visited the Pope to discuss the question of Precedence of American Cardinals at our social functions.” Actually, Butt just wanted to meet the Pope.

And he had worked it out in advance of the trip, carrying with him a letter of introduction from the President:

“Your Holiness,

I have given this letter to my personal Aide, Major Archibald W. Butt, of the Unites States Army, in order that, if circumstances permit, he may have the great honor of an audience with Your Holiness. He has been with me now for three years, and is absent on a sick leave in order that he may strengthen himself by a sea voyage to Rome and return.

With assurances of my most distinguished consideration,

I am, Your Holiness,

Sincerely Yours,

William Howard Taft

(Taft Papers, Reel 412, case file 1158)

The letter was dated February 29. Butt was supposed to have left a few days earlier, but had second thoughts about leaving Taft. He wrote a fellow White House aide, “the President will need every intime near at hand now. If we are ever to be of any real comfort to him, this is the time.” (Butt Papers, p. 851). It seems that someone, Butt, Millet or perhaps even Taft, decided upon a visit to the Vatican, and that may have helped convince Butt to sail to Europe on March 2.

I don’t know much about Butt’s trip to Europe except for this marvelous letter he wrote to Taft describing his visit with Pius X. Can you imagine! Butt, of Augusta, Georgia, was Episcopalian, but he clearly viewed the Pope as more than just a world leader. I’ll let his words speak for themselves. The following two letters are his last from Europe, and his last ever, as by April he worried over Taft and decided upon the quickest ride home he could find that being the famous new vessel, Titanic. Much is written about Butt’s heroism that night of April 14, 2012, but let’s let the reminiscences of a “Miss Young,” a White House music instructor and friend of Butt’s, who survived the sinking:

“Archie himself put me into the boat, wrapped blankets about me and tucked me in as carefully as if we were starting on a motor ride. He, himself, entered the boat with me, performing the little courtesies as calmly and with as smiling a face as if death were far away, instead of being but a few moments removed from him. When he had carefully wrapped me up he stepped upon the gunwale of the boat, and lifting his hat, smiled down at me. `Good‑bye, Miss Young,’ he said. `Good luck to you, and don’t forget to remember me to the folks back home.’ Then he stepped back and waved his hand to me as the boat was lowered. I think I was the last woman he had a chance to help, for the boat went down shortly after we cleared the suction zone.”

Taft had constructed a memorial to Butt and Millet, who was also lost on the Titanic, that stands yet today just south of the White House.

Now, here for Butt’s two letters from Rome, the first on his meeting with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal de Val, the next on his visit with the Pope. References to the Philippines regard Taft’s negotiations with the Vatican over disposition of Papal properties in the Philippines after the American seizure in 1898. Taft served as Military Governor, and he clearly developed a mutually respectful relationship with his counterparts from Rome. Additionally, the Vatican was fully aware of Taft’s nomination of Catholic Edward Douglass White to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (White was only the second Catholic Justice).

Butt makes an interesting comment about what he feared would be his mother’s opinion of his visit with the Pope: like worshiping Bael — a bit startling to read today, but most typical of the day, and which makes Butt’s respect for the Pope remarkable.

Note the references to the Papal State, Europe, America and Mexico. These were viciously difficult matters that Pius X and his predecessor, Pius IX, whom I wrote about in my post on Visit No. 12: St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, were confronted with. These were perilous times, navigated brilliantly by these magnificent Church leaders, one of whom is a Beatified Saint.

Archie Butt letters from Rome to Taft:

March 19, 1912
…. We then talked about the Church in the United States and he said, “We would not ask of any country more liberty than that which the Church enjoys in the United States.”  He was glad to get your estimate of the work of the Church against Socialism and said he hoped to see the church continue to exercise its influence for conservativism in the United States.  “But,” he said, “if things continue as they are we will soon be put to it to handle our own people.”  

I then startled him somewhat by asking him if the authorities in Rome fully understood what influence the Catholics of the United States were having on the Church itself.  He caught the point at once and this gave me a chance to tell him what the Catholics in the States were really doing and he kept me talking fully fifteen minutes on this line telling him of your trip in the West, how the Children were taught American principles, how the flag was in evidence everywhere, how that after all the Catholic children were about the only ones taught to sing the Star Spangled Banner and finally how all other churches were not only becoming liberal but friendly toward the Catholics and then how much of this new spirit was due to your own policy of recognizing Catholics and Protestants alike. 

He was intensely interested in Chief Justice White’s appointment and the reception of it by the American people.  He pumped me fairly dry on this subject and twice I got up to leave but he insisted on my remaining, saying that he would tell me when he would have to let me go.  Finally I said that some day the Pope should visit the United States and his answer came straight as a bullet, “Some day the Pope may be forced to visit the United States” — I felt that I was getting on dangerous ground and I really did not know what to say for I knew that he was thinking of France, Portugal and Spain and Mr. President you have no idea to what lengths the people here seem to be talking of taking over the Vatican as State property and following the lead of France in expelling the orders.

A few days later, he was given that prized audience with Pius X. Here is Butt’s letter in full:

Rome, March 23, 1912

My dear Mr. President:

I had my audience with the Pope this morning and so much occurred that as of interest to you, Sir, that I doubt the wisdom of withholding a description of what took place until my return.

In the first place, the Holy Father was more than cordial.  He appeared even eager to see me and asked a hundred questions about you, — your health, your habits (it seems that his habits are somewhat a matter of discussion with his Cabinet and he is rather fretful under the disciplinary measures which are taken to insure his taking exercise) and, above all, he wanted me to tell you that he has watched every move you have made, and he seemed wonderfully familiar with your trips, your speeches and your messages, and he says that he never retires without asking God to protect you and your family, and to spare you a long time for the principles for which you stand.  He even had me repeat what he had said in order that it would reach you correctly.

He then told me he would write you a letter expressing his gratitude for the kind messages which I conveyed to him from you.  He kept me with him for more than half an hour, and Monseignor Kennedy did nothing but interpret for us.  Once after I had repeated to him what Cardinal Del Val wanted me to say, he stopped the Monseignor and said he would like to see if he understood what I had been saying and when he learned that he had understood your message correctly, he was as pleased as when I am able to understand what Melza Winthrope is talking about in Spanish.  It seems that he is studying French most seriously and is trying to pick up English on the side.

When I told Cardinal del Val this incident, he laughed heartily and said he really thought the Holy Father’s own method of learning English was better than that by which he was studying French.  I told him that you sent him your most sincere and affectionate regard, and that you appreciated fully all that the Church was doing for conservative principles, and the fight it was making against socialistic tendencies of the day.

He asked me about he Philippines and seemed delighted that matters were progressing so well there, all of which, he said, showed the wisdom of your policy and the great qualities of your mind.  He asked me much about the church in the States, and I told him about what I had told Merry del Val, and then he took my hand and said it was the brightest message which had come to him for months, and his eyes, I though, filled with tears as he spoke.  Certain it was, he was much moved, and I saw why his Secretary of States had asked me to repeat this to him.

I told him what a prominent place his photograph had in your library, and then I fear I “threw him off,” as they say on the Bowery, a little on the Cabinet.  I told him how you would show it to the members of the Cabinet and challenge them to translate it, and that Secretary Dickinson had been the only one who could come near to doing it, and it was only by the use of a dictionary that even he could succeed.  This seemed to tickle him immensely, for he laughed just like the old monk does in that famous picture we have all seen.  Monseignor Kennedy told the Cardinal it was the heartiest laugh he had seen the Holy Father indulge in since he was made Pope.  So if I did an injustice to the Cabinet, it was in a good cause.  When he stopped laughing he asked me if you had translated it, and I promptly said yes, that it would have to be very difficult Latin indeed for you not to be able to read it at sight.  I hope this is the truth, for I should hate to have a lie checked up against me later on by Pius X, but I had no idea of admitting that you had any defects after all he had said.

I heard him ask the Monseignor if I were a Catholic, and the Monseignor said I was not; and then he said to the Monseignor, so the latter told me later, that he thought from my manner that I was one of the Faithful.  I should have liked very much to have entered into a discussion to prove that our Church did not start with Henry the Eight, but I feared this was not the time nor place to uphold the Apostolic succession of the Episcopal Church.

When I first entered the room I saluted and then dropped on one knee and made a motion at the ring.  I felt at that moment that my dear mother would have felt that I was bowing the knee to Bael, but I was determined to do nothing that could cause the slightest adverse comment.

Our audience was at half past ten, and when we got there the rooms were crowded with Cardinals, Bishops , Archbishops, Priests, and pilgrims from all over the world.  The least important were left in the first room, the next least important in the one nearer, and so on until we reached the Throne room, where the diplomats accredited to the Vatican just on the point of leaving, having already congratulated the Pope on his Saint’s Day, which was yesterday.  I think his Saint in s Saint Joseph.  Like all Catholics, he celebrates his Saint’s day for his own birthday.

I did not think the Diplomatic Corps an impressive lot, either as diplomats or as men.  My experience teaches me that diplomats are not a very high grade type, as a class.

I would have been more impressed with the Papal Quarters had I not already seen the splendid apartments of the Secretary of State.  The Pope’s rooms looked dingy and faded, and the thin green hangings in the windows looked out of place against h4e dull red of the silken covered walls.  In Merry de Val’s rooms, all the window hangings were crimson, the same shade as the rugs and tapestries.  But then his entire suite was dramatic in effect, and I think he has the dramatic touch; that is why he impressed one so much at first.

As soon as the Diplomatic Corps had left we were bidden to enter, and we passed prelates of all ranks and went in ahead of several Cardinals.  I always feel that I have gained a point if I enter ahead of a Cardinal, and I know it gives the Monseignor quivers of delight.  But while waiting, a number of the Noble Guard came up to be introduced, and seemed particularly interested in our uniform.  I wore the mounted uniform and it certainly did stand comparison with any uniform I have seen here, but it must fit well to look its best.

One of the Chamberlains, an old retired British Army office, Colonel Bernard [sp?], came up and held us by the throat for a long time, and then decided that he ought to arrange the curtains so as to admit more light and air.  As he did so Monseignor Kennedy said: “Isn’t that just like an Englishman?  He has no business to interfere with the curtains, and if he wants more air he should go outside and not let the Scirocco in at this season.”

When we came out of the Pope’s Chamber we found a message from Del Val asking us to call on him again.  I was very glad to do so, for hie is the meat in the cocoanut [sic] at the Vatican, although I get hints that he is not as popular as was Rampolla, nor so able a man, but before the day was over I had a chance to compare them, and certainly Del Val appeared to me to be the stronger of the two, though I feel sure that you would think that Rompolla was the abler, because his judgement is the better possibly, and then, too, he is less dramatic and spectacular.

But I confess to being somewhat dazzled by Del Val.  He fires one’s imagination.  When he asked me, for instance, if I was a Catholic I told him no, but that if he wanted some men to fight under him I would gladly enlist, but as a Spiritual force I was afraid I was a failure. Monseignor Kennedy told me I could have said nothing which would have pleased him more.

As soon as he knew that we were in the Cabinet room he sent for us at once and this time he admitted Monseignor whom he jokingly addressed as “the American Ambassador to the Vatican” which of course greatly pleased Monseignor Kennedy.  He then asked me how I thought the Pope was looking, and I said extremely well, better and stronger in fact than I had expected to see him.  He then asked the Monseignor and got the same reply, and then he told us the following incident:

He said that the Diplomatic Corps had just left him and that each one had whispered to him how terribly bad the Holy Father was looking.  “I did not think this could be so,” he said, “for while yesterday was his Saint’s Day and he did a great deal of handshaking, the physician told me when I sent for him this morning that the Pope was never better and later when I saw the Holy Father myself he told me the same thing, and in fact I though him looking particularly well.”

“Your Eminence,” I said, interrupting, “we go through the same thing in Washington every day, and they only make such statements to augment their own importance or to appear to be solicitous.  People don’t think that a Pope or a President has the right to look tired, and sometimes when I know the President to be at his best some wise-acre will come up and whisper to me that we had better look out for him.”

“I see you know this class also.  But to-day it angered me somewhat for there is not one of them who will not go direct form here and cable or telegram his government how ill the Holy Father is looking.  In fact, the Austrian Ambassador came back to tell me that while he had aid little when the rest were talking, still he thought it his duty to return to tell me privately that the Pope was looking very ill.  Of course they think I am a diplomat and that I am lying to them and I wanted to get your opinions to see if I could have been mistaken.”

Then it was the Monseignor told the Cardinal about the Cabinet and the photograph and the hearty laugh of the Holy Father.  The Cardinal wanted to know what else we talked about and I told him what I had said about the Peace Treaties and the gratitude you felt to the authorities of the Church for aiding you so much in this matter in the States, and of your hope that the Church would continue its effort along these lines in spite of temporary set-backs.

“Ah, Major, it seems an unfortunate time to talk about peace just now,” he said, rather sorrowfully, “for it seems to me that there was hardly ever a time when there was so much trouble brewing.  Conditions could not be much worse than they are in Europe to-day.  It would not surprise me at any time to see the whole of Europe enveloped in revolution.  I tell you freely, I feel most despondent about Europe.  You don’t know how you are to be envied in the United States.  Your troubles seem as nothing compared to the rest of the world.  But Mexico is next to you, and you know what is going on there.”

Monseignor Kennedy agreed with hi that Europe was more full of revolutionary ideas now than it ever had been.  “And,” he added, “I don’t see how it is going to escape.”  “Only by God’s will” added the Cardinal, with a wave of his hand, which I though sounded out of place coming from him, for what little I have seen of him makes me believe that he depends much less on God than he does on his own clever mind.

As I got up to go he asked me to turn around so that he could examine my uniform, and he was most complimentary about it.  He said, with a laugh: “In spite of the Monseignor’s presence here I will confess that if I had not donned the cassock I would have donned the uniform.  There is something about a uniform which always appeals to me, especially,” he said, “when it is as fine a one as that which you wear.”

As we were leaving the Vatican and Saint Peter’s we passed a small house on the right, and Monseignor told me it was the home of Rompolla.  He asked me if I had my letter to him, and when I told him I had, he thought it would be a good idea to leave it and make an engagement to call later.  But as soon as the Cardinal heard I was there he insisted on my coming upstairs, in spite of the fact that he was not receiving.

He was more than cordial.  I could not tell him too much about you, Mr. President.  I told him you had sent your regards, your respects and your esteem to various persons I would see — “But if you see Cardinal Rampolla,” I quoted you as saying, “give him my love.”  The Cardinal sent his love to you in return, and said that some day, if your were re-elected, he would ask nothing better than to take a trip to America just to see you.  “But I am getting too old,” he added with a jolly laugh, “and I fear that I must wait until your great President makes a trip around the world.”  “There was Vanutelli,” said the Monseignor.  “Ah, Vanutelli,” said the Cardinal, both eyes looking in different directions but twinkling in unison, “he is a longlegged kitten by the side of me.”

“What a fall for that great man,” said the Monseignor, as we were leaving.  “He was all powerful, and now he is here in this little home, and hardly has a handful to come see him, but he seems as happy as when he had the whole world following his footstep.

His present home is meager, even for a Parish priest in Washington.  It is old, faded and worn and smells musty, with hardly any comforts visible.  The Monseignor whispered to me as we got in our motor and started off: “But the greatest of them all, the greatest of them all, still.”  That, I believe is the general opinion around the Vatican.  He is now only the Head Priest of Saint Peters, and occupies the Parish House, but for all that, he is the most jovial person I have met in Rome.

Ever since I came in this afternoon the telephone has been ringing with inquiries from reporters and correspondents wanting to know if I am here on a mission from you.  It seems that the correspondents keep a close watch on the Vatican, and they seem to know all that I did there to-day.  Where they got it I don’t know, but I think they have been “tipped off,” Mr. President, by Monseignor Kennedy.  I had thought to be lost in this crowded city, but it seems that if you are once in the lime light it is a hard matter to find a dark spot in the entire world.

I have been most careful what I said to the newspaper men and have told each one that I was simply passing through Rome on my way to England, but I don’t suppose any one of them believed me any more than the diplomats believed Cardinal del Val, and that they will write whatever comes into their heads.  It is a privilege of the press, and one which they all abuse.

My letter seems longer than it should be and as I glance through it there does not seem to be much meat in it, but nevertheless if you are kindly disposed when it arrives you may find something of interest in it.  In the language of my own church, however, I hope you will not weigh its merits, but pardon its offenses.

Good night, dear Mr. President.  I join my prayers with those of the Holy Father for your safe-keeping and your happiness, — although I am not uh of a believer in happiness for Presidents.  Lucky for Presidents, I say, that there is prejudice against a third term!

As ever, Sir, Affectionately,

Your Aide,

Archie W. Butt