Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather

This is a very quiet, elegiac book that tells an epic story. In 1851, Jean Marie Latour is appointed Apostolic Vicar to the new American state of New Mexico. Latour sets off for his new home & experiences many hardships. He must bring together the European, Mexican & Native American people of the diocese with very little help or guidance. He experiences great hardships, travelling long distances through hostile territory & has to impose his authority on recalcitrant priests. He hears stories of the past & struggles to make sense of the place of the Church in the lives of his most impoverished parishioners. Forty years later, as Latour, now Archbishop, reaches the end of his life, he spends his retirement gardening & training new missionary priests from France in the ways of his parish.

Born in France, Latour has been a parish priest near Lake Ontario since he left the seminary & went to the United States as a missionary, with his great friend, Father Joseph Vaillant. Latour is sent to New Mexico to take charge of a vast diocese that has had no real discipline imposed on it for some time. The original Spanish missionaries who went out to New Mexico were driven out in the early 18th century & the current Bishop of Durango simply ignores the directives sent by his superiors in Rome. Latour & Vaillant reach Santa Fe to discover that no one knows who they are & no one pays them any attention. The documents sent to announce his appointment are at the mercy of a non-existent postal service so Latour decides to go to Old Mexico to visit the Bishop in person.

On this first journey in his new home, Latour becomes lost & is lucky to stumble across a Mexican settlement where he is welcomed & his arrival is seen as the answer to prayer as the villagers have been without the services of a priest for some time. There are marriages to be performed & children to baptize. This first experience shows Father Latour where his efforts must be directed. He sees his deliverance from almost certain death as a sign that he has made the right decision in coming to New Mexico.

Father Latour returns to Santa Fe after meeting the Bishop & receiving his accreditation from him to find that Father Vaillant has already made progress with the priests of the city. The two men are opposites in almost every way but the mission needs all their qualities. Father Vaillant is practical & determined. He has reorganized their house & taken charge of the cooking. While Father Latour worries about the size of the diocese & the many irregularities he has already heard about, Father Vaillant urges him to concentrate on sorting out Santa Fe first. Father Vaillant is often sent out to bring an unruly parish back into the fold & spends his life as a missionary in the farthest reaches of the country. Father Latour impresses by his compassion, his integrity & his devotion to the people he serves. Neither would have been successful without the other. At the end of the novel, Father Vaillant reflects on the differences in the two men,

Wherever he went, he soon made friends that took the place of country and family. But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to very few.

There are some wonderful stories in the novel. Father Vaillant is short & has trouble riding a horse comfortably. He convinces a wealthy parishioner to give him not one but two mules - one for himself & one for Father Latour. Father Vaillant could not be happy with a comfort that his friend could not share & the mules had been brought up together & so would be miserable apart. It's done with such humour & humility that the parishioner, who was happy to give one mule, decides that he's just as happy to give both his prize animals. Father Vaillant later goes to the goldfields of Colorado to minister to the miners & bring some religious comfort to a lawless place. He has a wagon constructed especially to carry all the things he will need to save souls & spread the Gospel & he & his wagon soon become famous throughout the territory. He would return to New Mexico on what he called begging expeditions but never returned for good.

Another time, the two priests are travelling in unfamiliar territory when they stop to ask shelter from a man whom they instantly dislike. His frightened, downtrodden Mexican wife, at great risk to herself, warns them to leave immediately &, acting on their own instincts, they do so. The woman, Magdalena, escapes in fear of her life & follows the priests back to Santa Fe. She tells them of her husband's cruelty & that he had murdered four travellers & had planned to murder the priests as well.

The journeys taken by the priests show them the vastness of the territory. I loved the descriptions of the wilderness & the landscape. Father Latour is a very self-contained man but he responds to the beauty of the landscape. He respects all his parishioners & treats them all with love & compassion. He is strict in his expectations of his priests, however, & his standards of behaviour are met eventually by the many renegade priests who had exploited the laxity of the previous Bishop's rule.

As I said at the beginning, this is an elegiac book. That may seem odd when there is so much action, so much danger & peril. However, there's a serenity in Willa Cather's writing that I find so attractive. Father Vaillant often said that he had wished for a life of contemplation before he agreed to go out as a missionary but realised that God had other, better plans for him. The strength of the two men's belief & conviction is at the core of the story & it's their confidence that they are on the right path, no matter how difficult or perilous their situation, that is so admirable. They are humble, very attractive personalities & I loved reading about their lives & about a part of the world I knew nothing about. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a beautiful book & I'm looking forward to reading more Willa Cather very soon.


  1. This and Shadows on the Rock are my favorite Cather books, closely followed by My Antonia and Oh Pioneers. I love Cather and have read everything she wrote, but Death Comes for the Archbishop is definitely my favorite!

    1. I read MA & OP many years ago but now that I've rediscovered Cather, I need to read them again! I've just bought a copy of SOTR so that may be next. I've been collecting her books so that I can reread the ones I read as a teenager as well as the ones I'd never read. I love these US Vintage editions.

  2. I only recently discovered her...The Professor's House is my current favourite. I think all her books will work well as audiobooks as well...giving one the chance to appreciate the cadence of the writing.

    1. I thought of audiobooks as well but when I looked on Audible, there are many versions of O Pioneers, Song of the Lark & My Antonia but not much else. I remember enjoying TPH years ago & it's one I want to reread.