*Vatican City. Enclave in Rome that is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and headquarters of the pope. There the novel opens in a prologue that describes an elegant garden in which three Italian cardinals select the new bishop of Santa Fe as they drink fine French wines. This scene contrasts sharply with the harsh world that the relocated priests will find in the American Southwest.
*Canada. Mission field from which Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are removed and sent to New Mexico. The Italian cardinals who make the decision to relocate the missionaries express concern about the tendency of priests in the Southwest to lead dissolute lives and agree that the diocese’s new bishop must come from a different culture so that he can impose order and orthodoxy in this new diocese. The cardinals are oblivious to the difficulty of the transition they are asking the French missionaries to make by moving from the cold climate of Canada to the hot arid deserts of the American southwest. The novel then describes the missionaries’ harrowing trip across inhospitable mountains, rivers, oceans, and deserts in their journey from Canada to Santa Fe.
*New Mexico. Territory in the American Southwest that the United States occupied in the late 1840’s, after winning the Mexican-American War. Most of the novel is centered in this arid region, particularly around the north-central town of Santa Fe, where Father Jean Marie Latour arrives in 1851 after a long and difficult journey from his previous missionary station on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario. The novel concludes with Latour’s death in Santa Fe after he has a cathedral built there.
The ability of the new missionaries to adapt to harsh climates prepares them to undertake even more daunting challenges in the Southwest. When they learn that lazy priests will not travel to distant corners of the diocese, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant make the journeys themselves, by mule. Cather eloquently describes the physical suffering the priests endure as they travel to small desert villages.
For the first time local Indians and Mexican Americans encounter missionaries who do not exploit them. Remaining faithful to their vow of poverty, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant teach by example and live in humble houses that contrast markedly with the elegant houses of the corrupt priests, gaining the respect and admiration of Catholics and non-Catholics alike in their large diocese. In a powerful scene, Bishop Latour leads a group of peasants and Native Americans up a mesa to expel a corrupt priest from his fortresslike home and turn over to the church the property he has stolen.
This beautifully written novel deals not only with Bishop Latour’s life in Santa Fe from 1848 until his death in 1889 but also with the spiritual growth of his diocese. Even after his retirement, he never leaves his adopted home to return to his native France. He lives on a small farm, says mass in local churches, and helps train newly arrived missionaries.
Form and Content
In an open letter to the editor of Commonweal (November 27, 1927) in response to queries from an admiring public, Willa Cather wrote about Death Comes for the Archbishop as follows:I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve [Pantheon nave, Paris, 1870’s] in my student days [actually first seen in 1902], I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in...
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