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 of their efforts.
Cather was often asked how much of the story of the two priests was based on historical fact. Perhaps the most accurate answer would be that the skeletal outline of the book is drawn from reality, but everything else is what Cather referred to as a “work of the imagination.” The book could be described as historical fiction, or perhaps fictionalized history, but whatever term one chooses to apply, it is clear that those elements that make Death Comes for the Archbishop remarkable are Cather’s. Her extraordinary prose style is much in evidence, painting vivid literary portraits of the southwestern landscapes and bringing to life a chapter in frontier history.
Cather’s love for the Southwest is evident throughout the book, and it reverberates in the love the two priests come to feel for the land and its people. Father Vaillant, in particular, is a man of the people—a dedicated priest who is happiest when he is able to minister to those cut off from the Church by distance or circumstance. Father Latour is a reflective man who sees his greatest dream accomplished in the building of a stone cathedral in Santa Fe, a building that combines the Romanesque architectural style of the Old World with the raw building resources of the New. In the novel’s moving final image, it is at the altar of this cathedral that Father Latour is laid after his death.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is rich in unforgettable set pieces and unique secondary characters. Among the book’s most memorable segments is the priests’ encounter with a dangerous man who offers them shelter for the night, fully intending to murder them and steal their mules. They are warned by his Mexican wife, whom they later assist after she, too, has fled. This event leads to an encounter with frontiersman Kit Carson, in an effective blending of fiction and history that typifies the skill with which Cather brings the past to life.
Ultimately, Death Comes for the Archbishop is, like much of Cather’s work, a tribute to the courage and perseverance of those who settled the American frontier. What Cather evokes so well in her depiction of Father Latour and Father Vaillant is the depth of purpose that led these men, and so many others like them, to leave behind the world they knew and undertake a mission that would transform their lives into an act of faith.
(The entire section is 3,295 words.)