Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.

One thought on “Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: September 2022 | Bob on Books

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