President Franklin Roosevelt – Catholic Evangelist?

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This post was written by Father Michael P. Morris, Archivist of the Archdiocese of New York.

FDR's House at Hyde Park

FDR’s House at Hyde Park

President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945), our thirty-second president and Dutchess County, New York denizen, was a life-long adherent to the Protestant Episcopal Church and a vestryman of Saint James Episcopal Church in his native Hyde Park, New York.  The Rev. Dr. Endicott Peabody, an Episcopal minister and headmaster of the Groton School in Massachusetts, where the young FDR was a student in the late nineteenth century, was considered by Roosevelt to be the single most influential person in his life.  Even during his years in the White
House, President Roosevelt frequently sought counsel from the sagacious clergyman.  Peabody’s death in November 1944 was taken by Roosevelt as one of his greatest losses.

President Roosevelt had a big heart, an even bigger personality, with a warmth unmatched by neither his thirty-one predecessors nor his twelve successors. Although he had countless acquaintances who vied for his friendship, there was a strange loneliness to Roosevelt and only a very select and chosen few were welcomed into his tiny inner circle.  One such friend who stands out quite clearly was his military aide, Major General Edwin “Pa” Watson.  Born in Alabama, one year after FDR in 1883, Watson grew up in Virginia and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1908.  Roosevelt first met Watson when the former was President Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the latter was Wilson’s junior military aide.  After distinguished combat service in World War I, Watson returned to Wilson’s White House and assisted Wilson and General Tasker Bliss, Wilson’s senior military aide at the Paris Peace Conference, culminating in the Versailles Treaty of June 1919.

In 1933, the newly-inaugurated President Roosevelt tapped the then-Colonel Watson for the position of senior military aide.  Watson’s role was expanded to that of appointments secretary, making the military officer the veritable gate-keeper of the president.  More importantly, it was Watson whom Roosevelt relied upon in many public appearances, in that President Roosevelt would lock his left arm into the crooked right arm of General Watson, giving the appearance that the polio-stricken commander-in-chief had the ability to stand and walk.

Throughout the dark days of the Great Depression and later World War II, it was General Watson who was the most steadfast and constant of Roosevelt’s friends, accompanying the President on his many visits home to Hyde Park and the many official journeys throughout the United States, Canada, and the Pacific.    General Watson traveled with President Roosevelt to Yalta, Crimea in February 1945, where the ailing President met with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in an effort to fashion a new post-war Europe.   On the return to the United States about the U.S.S. Quincy, General Watson was stricken with congestive heart failure.  What happened over those next few days was quite extraordinary.  In his 1974 work FDR’s Last YearApril 1944-April 1945 (New York: William Morrow & Co.), journalist Jim Bishop recounts the final days of “Pa” Watson:

The Quincy weighed anchor at 3:58 p.m. and her helm was swung north to clear the Suez Canal and Port Said on the overnight run to Alexandria.  The President surprised the ship’s company by asking to be carried below decks to shop in the ship’s store.  He was anxious to buy souvenirs.  Afterward, he asked to be wheeled to sick bay.  There he sat beside the bed of General Watson.  It was a sad meeting for two old friends.  Roosevelt assured Pa that he was going to be all right, and Watson shook his head negatively.  He reminded the Boss that he had often thought of being converted to Catholicism.  Pa wondered if it might be too late.  Roosevelt expounded on the beauties and mysteries of all religions and advised his cherished friend and court jester to call the Catholic chaplain and do it at once.  He reminded the General that this notion had been lurking in the back of his mind for a number of years.  Why not do it now?  Roosevelt was a practicing Episcopalian, a vestryman at Hyde Park, and he felt comforted by the spiritual solace he derived from it.  Why hesitate?  The General said that Mrs. Watson (the noted concert pianist Frances Nash) was a Catholic and he would not want to rest in a place apart from her.  That, the President said, was not a strong reason enough to convert.  A man had to believe in a faith.  The patient said that he had always been attracted to Catholicism.  As Roosevelt left, he patted his friend’s arm, told him he would be all right, and, if he wished, Roosevelt would use his influence with the chaplain to speed up Watson’s conversion.  When FDR got back to his sea cabin, the smile had fled; the listlessness returned.  A White House pouch of mail was on his desk but he did not read it.  He seemed engulfed in some secret meditation.  He asked an orderly to request the ship’s Catholic chaplain to see General Watson at once.  (pp. 601-602)

The Quincy’s Catholic chaplain Lt. Duane Brady, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, who later was made a monsignor and died in 1987, received General Watson into the Catholic Church.  Shortly thereafter, General Watson died shipboard of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 20, a month and a half before the death of President Roosevelt.  General Watson’s requiem mass was offered at Saint Matthew’s Pro-Cathedral, of the Archdiocese of Baltimore-Washington.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and his interment was attended by the grief-stricken and bewildered President Roosevelt – the man who played an important role in the conversion of this great figure in American history.

The march of time plays havoc on persons of note.  General Watson’s role as senior military aide and appointments secretary would correspond today with the role of chief of staff in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.  Most people today would not know anything about General Watson.  Sadly, there are many young people who would not know Franklin Roosevelt and most of his fellow American presidents.  But the story of General Watson is worth telling and very inspiring.  Great conversion stories such as that of Pa Watson’s gives Catholics hope, and helps to solidify that love for the Catholic faith.

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