Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
…the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. ~ Bishop Jean Marie Latour
This is the first time I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop or Cather. It is the third-person narrative of a Catholic priest and his mission to the expanding American Southwest, namely the New Mexico territory; middle to late 19th century. Some have categorized this historical fiction as a Western Novel, which it certainly is in the literal sense, but it is unlike most of that genre. It was written/published on the cusp of the shift from realism to modernism; I believe it is more of a realist novel.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel satisfies square N1 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Classic of the Americas
I had no expectations for this novel, knowing nothing about it. I suppose I should have added a spoiler alert – the title you know – yeah, he dies. I found this very enjoyable (not that he died – the novel in entirety). If you have read much of my blog, you’ve probably inferred I am a Christian. If you’ve read my blog carefully, you might also have correctly inferred that I am not Catholic. I will confess a degree of ignorance regarding my brothers and sisters on that side of the theological aisle, and I will finally confess that I found the lives of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant to be inspirational.
Most synopses say this is the story of Bishop Jean Marie Latour as he heads west to establish a Diocese in the newly acquired American territory of New Mexico. Personally I think it is better described as the story of the friendship of Bishop Latour and his vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant as they take up the mission. The two have been friends and colleagues since seminary and then missionaries to the new world in Ohio. In 1848 when Bishop Latour is chosen to establish the new Diocese he persuades his friend and vicar, Father Vaillant, to join him. The rest of the novel, nearly 40 years, recounts the challenges and success of that mission. It is largely a character driven novel, as there is no central or climactic conflict.
But there are certainly characters. There are rebellious and egotistical priests unwilling to recognize the Archbishop’s authority, devout, misguided or unguided Mexicans, and Hopi and Navajo converts with a blended form of Spiritism and Catholicism. There is the historical person Kit Carson, and of course the Archbishop and his vicar.
The names that Cather chose for the two French priests, offers a telling clue to their personal qualities. In their native tongue, La Tour means the tower, and Vaillant means Valiant. They were a perfect complement. Of the two, I liked Vaillant most, but both were likeable. At one point the Bishop reminisces of his first meeting Father Vaillant at Seminary:
There was something about the baker’s son that had given their meeting the colour of an adventure; he meant to repeat it. In that first encounter, he chose the lively, ugly boy for his friend.
If their friendship was touching, their devotion to Christ was glorious.
Narrative describing Kit Carson: As he stood there in his buckskin clothes one felt in him standards, loyalties, a code which is not easily put into words but which is instantly felt when two men who live by it come together by chance.
Bishop Latour had one very keen worldly ambition; to build in Santa Fe a cathedral which would be worthy of a setting naturally beautiful. As he cherished this wish and meditated upon it, he came to feel that such a building might be a continuation of himself and his purpose, a physical body full of his aspirations after he had passed from the scene.
Bishop Latour’s thoughts: The Mexicans were children who played with their religion.
Bishop Latour’s thoughts: …the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ.
Father Vaillant defending why he served better among remote Indians and Mexicans, rather than with the Bishop in Santa Fe: Any one of our good French priests from Montferrand can serve you here. It is work that can be done by intelligence. But down there it is work for the heart, for a particular sympathy, and none of our new priests understand those poor natures as I do. I have almost become a Mexican! I have learned to like chili Colorado and mutton fat. Their foolish ways no longer offend me, their very faults are dear to me. I am their man!
Nothing one could say of Father Vaillant explained him. The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into. A Navajo Hogan, some abjectly poor little huddle of Mexican huts, or a company of Monsignori and Cardinals at Rome – it was all the same.
Narrative describing the desert: Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.
Bishop Latour quoting Pascal: Man was lost and saved in a garden.
Bishop Latour: I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.
Narrative regarding Bishop Latour: Yes, he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fe. He had accomplished an historic period.