Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
''Death Comes for the Archbishop,'' one of Willa Cather's later novels, celebrates the natural beauty of New Mexico and the importance of the adventures of two French Catholic missionaries in contributing to the social life of the area.

Willa Cather

Will Cather was born in 1873 in Nebraska, and though trained in the East, wrote fiction that depicted and celebrated the American West. Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) was inspired by the lives and careers of the real-life nineteenth century French priests Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Machebeuf who came to New Mexico.

Summary

In 1850, French Catholic priests Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his childhood friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, are sent from their diocese on the Great Lakes to their new home, a huge area of which has recently become part of the United States (and is now the state of New Mexico). When they arrive in Santa Fe, this is the first of many long and arduous journeys the priests endure, coming to respect and love the land and the people.

Latour and Vaillant studied the priesthood together in southern France and left to become missionaries in the diocese of St Louis, Missouri. Latour is distinguished and scholarly, while Vaillant is homely and fierce. Their next twenty years are spent in various adventures around the region, visiting Indian pueblos and Mexican ranches alike to baptize and sanctify marriages in geographically remote locations.

They meet Kit Carson, an American scout, soldier, and interpreter, who becomes their friend; equally, Latour is befriended by Eusabio, a Navajo clansman. They clash with native priests and a schismatic church in Taos and Arroyo Hondo. Eventually, a French Catholic community arises in Santa Fe, where it is Latour's life's work to build a Romanesque Cathedral, which he accomplishes.

Latour and Vaillant are separated when Vaillant follows his calling to the lawless miners' camps that spring up around Pike's Peak in Colorado. During his last days, Latour recalls his friendship with Vaillant and dies in the shadow of the cathedral that he built. To give one of the most recognized quotations from the book, Where there is great love, there will always be miracles.

New Mexico landscape

Themes

Death Comes for the Archbishop is made up of incidents and does not have a plot as such. Instead, much of its power comes through its themes.

The book celebrates the American work ethic, exemplified by the lives of the two priests. They both love good food, and Bishop Latour loves books and fine possessions, but both practice self-sacrifice and hard work in order to establish their community. Other respected characters in the book demonstrate this virtue.

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