Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810

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 Indian village of Ácoma. There he hears the legend of Friar Baltazar Montoya, a cleric so self-indulgent and arrogant that his parishioners killed him.

The bishop has an Indian guide, Jacinto, and visits his pueblo and family, thereby learning more of local religious ways, coming to respect them. Once lost in a snowstorm, they find refuge in a sacred Indian cave.

The most troublesome priest for the bishop is the curate at Taos, Padre Martinez. Born locally, the priest has become an authoritarian, astute, and materialistic anomaly, and the bishop replaces him. A compatriot and archrival of Martinez is the miserly Father Lucero, at Arroyo Hondo. The two form a schismatic church. Trinidad Lucero, a dim-witted nephew, supposedly studying to be a priest, accompanies them. Martinez dies, remaining in schism. After knifing a thief who gets into his house, Lucero dies, reconciled to the Church. It is discovered that he has left a fortune of twenty thousand American dollars.

Bishop Latour had grown up in a refined French provincial family. He and Father Vaillant find some of the quality of this life through Doña Isabella, second wife of the wealthy rancher Don Antonio Olivares. Educated at a French convent, Doña Isabella establishes a salon atmosphere on her husband’s ranch. They both greatly admire the bishop and frequently receive and support him. When Don Antonio dies, his will is contested. The two clerics successfully advise her, encouraging a convenient manipulation of the truth at a trial, and her inheritance is secured.

Often ill but ever resilient, Father Valliant becomes quite sick and recovers only as the bishop promises to allow him to move further into...

(This entire section contains 810 words.)

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the frontier to do missionary work. Bishop Latour falls into a period of depression but recovers after a midnight conversation in his church with a poor Indian housekeeper, in bondage to her Protestant employers. Young French priests come to work with Bishop Latour, and he reflects on what had been the loving and special character of Father Vaillant. The bishop’s guide is now Eusabio, whose people Latour defends from frontier advances.

The discovery of gold at Pike’s Peak rapidly increases the population within Bishop Latour’s jurisdiction. Father Vaillant is eager to go to Colorado to support the spiritual needs of the raw frontier settlement. Bishop Latour reluctantly appoints him to the parish of Denver. The bishop talks about the golden yellow stone he has found in the mountains, which he believes most appropriate for building of a French-style cathedral.

Raised to an archbishop but now in his seventies, Latour retires to a small estate near Santa Fe. A young French seminarian, inspired by the bishop’s life, comes to be his close companion. Debilitated by illness, the archbishop expresses the desire to return to Santa Fe. Shortly after arriving, he dies and his body is laid in the cathedral he built.