Late in his life, while traveling through Italy, William Thompson (1838-1900) sought a meeting with Pope Leo XIII.
“I thought he and I might sit down and have a confidential chat,” the former mayor of Butte (1895-1897) wrote in a February 20, 1898 letter to the Montana Standard, “but I wasn’t even invited to sit down.”
Instead, my second grand grandfather was forced to address the pope from a standing position, with a bunch of attendants hanging around. That didn’t stop Thompson from delivering his message. Thompson confessed to the pope that he had been elected mayor on a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, orchestrated by the American Protective Association (A.P.A.), whose members famously vowed never to vote for a Catholic, or hire one, if a Protestant was available. The self-affacing Thompson told the pope that he had “had enough of all kinds of waves.
“He said he was sorry to hear it, but didn’t say whether he was sorry for the wave or sorry I had had enough of it. I questioned him on this point and he said it was only movements like the A.P.A. that keep the Catholic church growing in America; that if it wasn’t for such things the church would decline.”
The pope’s seemingly audacious opinion took Thompson aback. He wrote that he felt “quite guilty” about the sledgehammer blows he leveled on the pope during his election campaign, when the pontiff was thousands of miles away. Apparently Thompson wanted forgiveness that wasn’t coming.
“The Pope went on to tell me that there are scores of thousands of people in America who were brought up Catholics but had become lukewarm and were no longer active supporters of the church. They gradually drifted away from the church and their support would be entirely lost were it not for movements like the A.P.A.”
The A.P.A.’s plank included lifting Irish Catholics from the “tyranny of the priesthood” and freeing Butte from “Romish hierarchy” and the “henchmen of that old loon,” a reference to his holiness.
The pope shook Thompson’s hand and said he was glad to welcome any man who had helped grow the Catholic church. Then the pope suggested that Thompson thank the leaders of the A.P.A. on his behalf. He went so far as to suggest that Thompson ask the A.P.A. leaders to “keep it up” as a favor to him.
“This was a paralyzer, to be sure. I had never had my breathe quite so completely knocked out of me and I began to feel sea sick. I more than half believed that the Pope himself got that A.P.A. movement started just in order to get Catholics back in line who had been drifting away from the church.”
Before his semi-private audience, Thompson had watched the pope celebrate mass to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his first mass. With more than 15,000 people looking on, the pope, attired in red with a gold chain around his neck, was borne the length of the church in the media gestatoria by six footmen. Maybe this was why Thompson had expected a sit-down meeting.
Thompson made an important anatomical discovery while he was watching the ceremony.
“I can state positively that he had no horns. I looked very close and am sure I couldn’t be mistaken. I can’t swear as to the tail, for it might have been folded up under his robes. But it is only fair for me to say that I didn’t see any tail.”
During his cruise of the Mediterranean, Thompson stopped in Gibraltar, Algiers, and Marseilles. He left the ship at Genoa to take a “flying trip” to Naples. He stopped in Genoa to see the great monument to Christopher Columbus.
From Genoa, Thompson took an 8-hour train ride to Pisa, where he saw the 197-foot-tall leaning tower, which he noted leaned 13 feet from a perpendicular line. The former builder and developer claims that he went the city council and offered, for $5000, to set it straight again. But they wouldn’t listen to his proposition.
“They said it had been leaning for hundreds of years and they wanted to let it lean. That shows how slow the people are in this country. In our country it would have been fixed up straight years ago.”