A chance encounter forges a lifelong friendship with the commander-in-chief.
This is the fifth in a series of feature stories, profiles, and anecdotes recounting the significance of important events in the history of Saint Leo University, which is currently commemorating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889.
By Kim Payne, University Communications
Oct. 21, 1905
Abbot Charles Mohr of Saint Leo Abbey and College was in town to meet with State Senator James Taliaferro of Tampa and several others. He was about to have an encounter with the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who was in the first year of his second term and was scheduled to speak at the Seminole Club in Jacksonville.
When the president arrived, Senator Taliaferro called Abbot Charles to the president. President Roosevelt, being his ebullient self, reacted enthusiastically to the introduction of Abbot Charles: “All my information regarding abbots comes from reading Sir Walter Scott novels, but now I am glad to shake hands and bid welcome to a real live Benedictine abbot!” he exclaimed.
The conversation continued, and Abbot Charles mentioned he had served as postmaster of Saint Leo Township for 16 years, to which the president acknowledged his service as a “co-laborer” and indicated that he had the highest regard for his church. He noted that a member of his own cabinet, Navy Secretary Charles Bonaparte, was a ‟good” Catholic and he had recently seen Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore. “Your church has nothing to fear from me,” said President Roosevelt.
To the delight of Abbot Charles, the president invited him to join him in his private box that adjoined the speaker’s stand as others pushed forward to greet President Roosevelt.
Abbot Charles captured his enthusiastic encounter with the energetic Rough Rider in a lengthy letter that he requested be read to the monks at the table:
The president [in his speech] spoke with clarity, ease, and deliberation; but in ordinary conversation he stammers a bit. The cartoons depicting him are very lifelike. He gesticulates much, and in speaking, shows all his teeth.
He concluded the letter by telling him his community admires him in many ways and, noting a promise he made to the president, “We will pray for you.”
Upon returning to Saint Leo from Belmont Abbey, North Carolina, he penned a letter to President Roosevelt in which he extends an open invitation for him to visit the college and abbey. This never materialized. However, shortly after Roosevelt left office, the abbot visited him at his family home in Long Island, New York.
The two corresponded during the remaining three and a half years of the president’s term and throughout his post-presidential career.
Near the end of Roosevelt’s second term, Abbot Charles, building on their growing friendship, sent him an autographed self-portrait in formal vestments, in which he also enclosed a blessed medal of Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order. “The good saint will protect you and bring your family home safely [from an upcoming African safari].” In response, the president sent his own photograph inscribed: “To Abbot Charles H. Mohr with the regards of Theodore Roosevelt, December 14, 1908.” Abbot Charles treasured the president’s photograph and replied in a note: “I shall have it framed and keep it in my cell.” He also enclosed a medal for the president’s wife, Edith. “You are our President and I am your abbot,” he concluded.
Due to the close proximity of Saint Leo’s dependent parish in Farmingdale, Long Island, near the president’s residence on Oyster Bay, Abbot Charles developed a familial relationship with the Roosevelts and their children. The abbot’s official visits to St. Kilian Parish in Farmingdale took him there annually.
During one of the abbot’s visits, T.R., as he was known to his friends, was particularly gratified with Abbot Charles’ personal attention and concern for one of his children, who was bothered by a periodic aliment. President Roosevelt stated in a letter to the abbot: “Mrs. Roosevelt and I were really touched by both your manner and words as you said goodbye to our son, Kermit.”
The year 1911 proved to be a particularly busy time for both the president and the abbot as President Roosevelt was re-entering national politics to revive the Republican Party’s progressive policies and Abbot Charles was battling local anti-Catholic attacks on the Church in the South. He was attempting to defend it from the “un-American” label that religious extremists were applying to it.
President Roosevelt, who was by then contributing editor of The Outlook, a New York journal, received a pamphlet labeled “An Answer” from Abbot Charles, outlining his rebuttal to a speech at a local Baptist church where Catholics were verbally attacked, and he refuted the outrageous claims by pleading for reverence and civility.
In a letter dated November 20, 1911, President Roosevelt replied: “My dear Abbot, you kept your promise and made it a friendly paper. To use your final words: There is no cause to which I am more committed in heart and soul than the course of working to bring about among religious people that true peace which is founded upon justice. ” He concluded by inviting the abbot to visit New York to meet The Outlook editors.
Summer of 1912
In a letter, the abbot offered his fatherly advice to T.R., counseling him not to run for a third term. President Roosevelt was embroiled in a fight with President Taft over delegates for the upcoming Republican convention. From his train while campaigning for delegates, T.R. wrote:
My Dear Abbot Charles:
Whether I can be nominated or elected I do not know, but I do know that the fight had to be made for the plain people and that at the moment there was nobody else to make it but myself; and without regard to the result I have gone in and shall stay in. It is good to hear from you.
Spring of 1913
Abbot Charles wrote sympathetically: “I hope you and Mrs. Roosevelt are well. Let us watch Woodrow Wilson try to run this country as if it were a classroom full of pupils.” President Roosevelt was probably not amused by his words. The 1912 political campaign took a heavy toll on T.R.’s life, especially the attempted assassination in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in October, 1912.
President Roosevelt embarked on an expedition to discover the hidden source of the Amazon of “The Rivers of Doubt.” While nearly dying in the effort, he was successful in accomplishing his mission.
Abbot Charles remained embroiled in the refutation of the increased attacks on the Church in the South. T.R. continued to concentrate on entering World War I by leading a volunteer division to Europe.
July 14, 1918
President Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, died as a war pilot in France.
January 6, 1919
President Roosevelt died at his family home in Sagamore Hill, Cove Neck, New York.
The Roosevelt Memorial Association invited Abbot Charles to be a member, to which he replied immediately with his membership for himself, Saint Leo College, and Saint Leo Abbey. The Association’s motto: “One flag, the American flag; one language, the language of the Declaration of Independence; one loyalty, loyalty to the American people.” This gesture was a tribute to a rare friendship.
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Kim Payne joined Saint Leo’s University Communications office in 2013 as the staff writer and media coordinator. A 30-year professional communicator, he has worked in environments ranging from corporate to health care to advertising agencies and non-profits. Outside the office, he and his wife, Sue, enjoy playing golf and are huge hockey fans. You can reach Kim in UC at 352-588-7233 or [email protected]