Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Death Comes for the Archbishop is the book that Cather believed to be her finest work. Like The Professor’s House, it is a novel that explores the life of a man and draws on the American Southwest for its setting. Here the similarity ends, however, as the tone of the two books is quite different.
Unlike the earlier books, Death Comes for the Archbishop celebrates the life choices of its central characters, finding in the lives of Father Joseph Vaillant and Father Jean Marie Latour a simple dignity and extraordinary fulfillment.
Cather based her story on William Howlett’s account of the life of Father Macheboeuf, vicar to Archbishop Lamy of New Mexico. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the book follows the fortunes of Father Latour and his assistant and friend, Father Vaillant, as they organize the disjointed religious structure of the southwestern missions. The two face a formidable task, made more difficult by powerful priests long in control of the area who are loathe to abandon the corruption into which they have fallen. Working together diligently and with an unshakable faith, Father Latour and Father Vaillant eventually reclaim the region and bring its far-flung communities under the guidance of a single diocese.
The actual course its story takes, however, is less important than the novel’s moving exploration of the human spirit as it is revealed in the two priests. Father Latour and Father Vaillant, both men of deep faith and dedication, willingly sacrifice much in the way of personal desires for the sake of the mission they have undertaken, and the book shines with the integrity and nobility...
(The entire section is 681 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Death Comes for the Archbishop opens with a prologue in which three cardinals and a French missionary bishop from the Great Lakes are gathered for dinner while watching a radiant Roman sunset. The bishop has come to plead for the episcopal appointment of a man of vigorous faith to the newly annexed U.S. territory of New Mexico. The bishop’s candidate is a fellow countryman, Father Jean Marie Latour, a missionary priest in Ohio. As the dinner ends, the host, head of the Propagation of the Faith, wanly accedes to the bishop’s request.
After a yearlong, hazardous trek from Ohio, Bishop Latour arrives as apostolic delegate in Santa Fe, accompanied by his boyhood friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, the vicar general. The local Mexican clergy does not accept his authority, so he must travel to the former head of the jurisdiction, the bishop of Durango. He loses his way during this journey and is befriended by an isolated Mexican family with whom he stays, observing the syncretism that has occurred between Catholic and local religious practices. Returning to Santa Fe, he finds that Father Vaillant has secured a house and furnishings for them, even a bell for the church.
For their missionary journeys, Father Vaillant persuades a local rancher, Manuel Lujon, to give them two mules, Contato and Angelica. On a pastoral trip to Mora, the priests rescue a woman, Magdalena, who has been made a domestic prisoner by her scoundrel Yankee husband. They take her to live happily in a convent with a newly arrived group of nuns. The bishop meets the historic figure Kit Carson and establishes a lasting relationship.
Latour begins to visit his parish priests. At Albuquerque he meets the good-living and no longer celibate Father Gallegos, whom the bishop resolves to dismiss. At Isleta the bishop meets an aged, kindly, and austere priest, the opposite of Father Gallegos, who lives a faithful and humble priestly life. Traveling further, the bishop arrives at the...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Willa Cather populates Death Comes for the Archbishop with characters who seem features of the landscape. They have depth but they represent types rather than particular personalities. They do not develop and change so much as they reflect a movement by the Catholic church in the mid-1800’s to reinforce its teachings and to locate potential converts.
One New Mexico missionary, Jean Latour, is reflective and intellectual. Another, Joseph Vaillant, is impulsive, enthusiastic, adept at garnering funds for the cause. Latour has admirers, but Vaillant is able to get closer to the people. Cather sees them as two wings of the church, different but each respectful of the other, united in a common goal.
In her treatment of the natives of the region, Cather shows some bias. Certainly she was influenced by some widespread misconceptions of the times. Throughout the novel, Mexicans are portrayed less favorably than are Indians. Father Vaillant’s attitude toward Mexicans underlies much of the work. He thinks of them as little children, but says “their foolish ways no longer offend, their faults are dear.” Bishop Latour also infantilizes Mexicans, suggesting they have not “room in their minds for two ideas.” The Mexican padres are disreputable. Far from having a disciplined commitment to the church, they are boozing womanizers who seek personal gain while ruling their parishioners with an iron fist.
Cather puts the reader on...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In 1851, Father Jean Marie Latour reaches Santa Fé, where he is to become Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. His journey from the shores of Lake Ontario is long and arduous. He loses his belongings in a shipwreck at Galveston and suffers painful injury in a wagon accident at San Antonio. When he arrives, accompanied by his good friend Father Joseph Vaillant, the Mexican priests refuse to recognize his authority. He has no choice but to ride hundreds of miles into Mexico to secure the necessary papers from the bishop of Durango.
On the road, he loses his way in an arid landscape of red hills and gaunt junipers. His thirst becomes a vertigo of mind and senses, and he can blot out his own agony only by repeating the cry of the Savior on the Cross. As he is about to give up all hope, he sees a tree growing in the shape of a cross. A short time later, he arrives in a Mexican settlement called Agua Secreta (hidden water). Stopping at the home of Benito, Father Latour first performs marriage ceremonies and then baptizes all the children.
At Durango, he receives the necessary documents and starts the long trip back to Santa Fé. Father Vaillant in the meantime wins over the inhabitants of Santa Fé and sets up the episcopal residence in an old adobe house. On the first morning after his return, Father Latour, now officially bishop, hears the unexpected sound of a bell ringing the Angelus. Father Vaillant tells him that he found the bell, bearing the date 1356, in the basement of old San Miguel Church.
On a missionary journey to Albuquerque in March, Father Vaillant acquires a handsome cream-colored mule as a gift and another just like it for Bishop Latour. These mules, Contento and Angelica, faithfully serve the men for many years. On another trip, as the two priests are riding together on their mules, they are caught in a sleet storm and stop at the rude shack of the American Buck Scales. His Mexican wife warns the travelers by gestures that their lives are in danger, so they ride on to Mora without spending the night. The next morning, the Mexican woman appears in town and tells them that her husband murdered and robbed four travelers and that he killed her three babies. As a result, Scales is brought to justice and his wife, Magdalena, is sent to the home of Kit Carson, the famous frontier scout. From that time on, Carson is a valuable friend of the two priests. Magdalena later becomes the housekeeper and manager for the kitchens of the Sisters of Loretto.
During his first year at Santa Fé, Bishop Latour is called to a meeting of the Plenary Council in Baltimore. On the return journey, he brings back with him five nuns sent to establish the school of Our Lady of Light. Attended by Jacinto, an American Indian who serves as his guide, Latour spends some time...
(The entire section is 1143 words.)