Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather
“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” ― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather believed this novel 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.
The novel 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. The narrative has frequent digressions, either in terms of stories related to the pair (including the story of the Our Lady of Guadeloupe and the murder of an oppressive Spanish priest at Acoma Pueblo) or through their recollections. There is an omniscient narrator, while interwoven in the narrative are fictionalized accounts of actual historical figures, including Kit Carson, Manuel Antonio Chaves and Pope Gregory XVI.
In the prologue, Bishop Montferrand, a French bishop who works in the New World, is soliciting three cardinals at Rome to pick his candidate for the newly created diocese of New Mexico (which has recently passed into American hands). Ultimately he is successful in getting his preferred candidate recommended by the cardinals. Cather describes the garden setting in great detail. It is carved into the mountains overlooking Rome. The setting is refined and cultivated, underscored by the cardinal's tastes for fine wine, gourmet food, and art. As the Catholic Church has become the predominant civilizing element of Europe, so too will it serve to civilize the American Southwest.
The story follows the two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillantas, as they organize the disjointed religious structure of the southwestern missions. They 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, they 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. The priests, 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.
Father Latour is described as a thirty-five-year-old French Jesuit missionary. The French Jesuits are believed by the cardinals to be great organizers. Ferrand predicts that the New Mexico territory will "drink up [Latour's] youth and strength as it does the rain." Latour also will be called upon to make great personal sacrifices, perhaps even becoming a martyr.
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. Cather foreshadows the color themes she dedicates to the southwestern landscape by describing the dome of St. Peter's as bluish-gray with "a flash of copper light." Later, as the sun sets, Cather describes the sky as "waves of rose and gold." She will eventually use various shades of copper and gold to describe the terrain of New Mexico. In addition, her description of the "soft metallic surface" of St. Peter's contrasts with the hardness of the American frontier depicted by the bishop. Cather also describes the light as both intense and soft, revealing the relative easiness of European life in comparison to the lives of American missionaries.
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.