Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather
Published Date: June 16, 1990
Genre: Historical Fiction; Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Death Comes For The Archbishop shares a limitless, craggy beauty with the New Mexico landscape of desert, mountain, and canyon in which its central action takes place, and its evocations of that landscape suggest why Willa Cather is acknowledged without question as the most poetically exact chronicler of the American frontier. Told with a directness that overlays its profound artistry, this story of the nineteenth century missionary priest Father Latour and his work of faith in the wilderness shines from within by virtue of its clear devotion to the human idea.
My Thoughts: Many years ago I read My Antonia and O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I don't remember much beyond the premise of the stories and some of the characters. Most of the details of the books evade me. What I've never forgotten is Willa Cather's beautiful writing. She writes in a simple, subtle way without a lot of flowery language and heavily worded sentences but creates a visually stunning image of the land that is so much a part of her books. I remember feeling as if I 'd been transported to Nebraska and the land of pioneers. I recall being able to see clearly the vistas Cather described. I've always wanted to read more of Willa Cather's work and experience more of her writing. When Molly one of the contributors to Quirky Girls Read blog announced she was hosting The Classics Bribe for the summer I picked up a copy of Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather.
Death Comes For The Archbishop is set in New Mexico in the mid-1800s. The United States recently acquired the territory of New Mexico. Although the area is predominantly Catholic, the faith of the people living here has been neglected for many years: the old mission churches are in ruins and the few priests there are to guide this vast area lack guidance and discipline. Bishop Jean Marie Latour, recently consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and his friend and fellow priest, Father Joseph Vaillant are French Jesuit missionaries who are appointed to Sante Fe to establish and lead the diocese. As the story opens, they are traveling from Sandusky, Ohio to Sante Fe, New Mexico. an arduous, lengthy journey.
The trip takes an entire year because there is no direct route from Ohio to Santa Fe. In fact, it was difficult for Father Latour to find anyone who could tell him how to get to New Mexico. He and Father Vaillant, amidst a host of misadventures, travel down the river to New Orleans, then go by boat to Galveston, Texas; across Texas to San Antonio and, finally, along the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Little do the priests know it, but this long, treacherous journey will prove to be a good test for their time in New Mexico. Not everyone is looking forward to Father Latour's arrival and he and Father Vaillant will encounter resistance to their attempts to bring discipline and order to the practice of the catholic religion, much of it from priests who have the loyalty of the people they guide.
I didn't know the storyline of Death Comes For The Archbishop before I sat down with the book. When I realized it's about a Bishop and a priest trying to establish, discipline and strengthen the catholic religion in the newly acquired land of New Mexico I seriously questioned whether or not I really wanted to read this book. I remembered the wonderful comments I'd heard about it over the years and why I'd wanted to read more books by Willa Cather, opened the book and began to read. I read Chapter One: The Cruciform Tree of Book One: The Vicar Apostolic and I was hooked. Cather describes the land Father Latour sees in front of him one of the first times he's traveling in New Mexico and I remembered what I loved about Cather's writing. The passages read as if she's in New Mexico, looking around and telling us what she sees: the colors, the shapes, the textures of the ground, the rocks, the plants bring the landscape to life. I felt transported to New Mexico. I was able to picture and understand what Father Latour sees all around him the first time he sees New Mexico. Despite the hardship of the journey, Father Latour is invigorated by the vivid landscape and sees in it the courage and resilience as well as the pain and suffering of the people who live on this land. He knows the heart of the faith is in this strange and foreign land, vastly different from the Ohio land he's used to.
Cather's considerable talent doesn't lie in landscape descriptions alone. Father Latour and Father Valliant may be French Jesuit missionary priests and therefore difficult to identify with but they are also human. Over the course of the book, as I followed the travels of the priests, read about the work they were doing and experienced their interaction with the Native Americans and the many other people they encountered, Father Latour and Father Valliant became very real, I felt like I knew and understood them. Father Latour, the main character in the book, is intelligent, quiet, reserved and very kind. He's not an outgoing person and spends much of his time contemplating what he sees and hears. Sadly, he is a very lonely man. He greatly respects the Native Americans and their practices and has a good repore with them. His Vicar, Father Valliant, a wonderful priest and somewhat the opposite of Father Latour in many ways, is humble, extremely passionate and bery personable. He's known for being impulsive and is always anxious to be busy and to be with people. Father Vaillant has a knack for talking to people of all kinds and can make almost anyone comfortable and trusting of him.
Death Comes For The Archbishop is really a series of vignettes in which Cather relays the experiences of Father Latour and Father Valliant as they work to establish and discipline the catholic faith in this vast territory. They encounter much resistance from Spanish-Mexican priests who have been there for a long time, able to do as they please with little guidance or discipline in this land long forgotten and ignored by Rome. I found it fascinating to read about priests such as Father Gallegos in Albuquerque who was a hedonistic glutton and a gambler and Father Martinez in Taos who was a promiscuous libertine. Both these priests and some others lived lives rampant with avarice and greed, both having many mistresses and too much money and tangible luxuries They fervently resist the discipline and order Father Latour expects of them and openly mock him. In Cather's skilled hand these portrayals ring with authenticity especially when she describes the varied, vastly different approaches Father Latour and Father Valliant suggest to deal with this sacrilege. These incidents underline the variety of problems and occurrences the priests encounter daily in this foreign place. It's a wonder they have any time to say Mass, meditate and pray
I really enjoyed the sections about Father Latour and the Native Americans in which I realized just how important the land is and was treated to more of Cather's picturesque imagery.. Cather writes with absorbing detail about the rituals and rites practiced by the Native Americans. Father Latour discovers that some of their superstitions and beliefs have been intertwined with their faith but he understands the futility of trying to impose his religion on their centuries old culture. There's what feels almost like reverence in the passages portraying the culture and lives of the Native Americans. They live and work with a quiet certainty and focus. I sympathized with the Native Americans as they are forced to contend with white men moving onto the land, imposing their way of life, destroying much of its raw beauty. Father Latour shows a great respect and understanding for Native Americans and the place of nature in their culture. This, in turn, garners him their respect and honor. Unlike the white man, Native Americans respect the land and work with it as it is presented to them, leaving it as they found it. They don't tear it down, break it apart or change it like the white man does. In the Hopi villages built upon rock mesas, Father Latour notices the villages look so much like the rocks upon which they sit that from a distance they cannot be seen. The Native Americans dislike novelty and change, believing that respect for the land will keep them safe, cared for and protected.
Death Comes For The Archbishop was so much more than I ever expected. Primarily it's the story of Father Jean Marie Latour's years in New Mexico establishing and running the Catholic diocese in Santa Fe with his Vicar and friend Father Joseph Valliant. In it's own way, this, too, is a pioneer story not unlike My Antonia and O Pioneers! but with priests bringing a disciplined and ordered religion to the people. The story is set in a beautiful land whose terrain requires a strong and passionate faith to survive and thrive in it. Death Comes For The Archbishop is also a story of this land and the many different people and cultures who live on and from the land and the priests who arrived one day to help and to improve the lives of the people. This is a beautifully written, compelling story that deserves to be read slowly and savored. I highly recommend it.