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.)
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...
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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.)