Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop
In Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather writes about the condition of the Catholic Church in the New Mexico Territory upon the occasion of the United States’ annexation of the territory after the Mexican-American War. In the Prologue a council of cardinals, one French, one Italian and one Spanish meet to determine what should be done with the area. They are concerned that the Church in the area has become corrupt and neglected.
After consulting with Bishop Ferrand whose diocese is located near the Great Lakes in the United States, the cardinals appoint Father Jean Marie Latour Bishop of the new Diocese in New Mexico.
The Spanish Cardinal de Allande tells a story about an El Greco painting that his grandfather had donated to a priest who lived in the area of New Mexico. He has heard it has burned down , but asks that Latour keep his eye open for the painting in hopes that it might be returned to his family.
Stich suggests that the Grail in the book is the search for Catholics who may or may not exist in the new territory (Stich, 63) or the Seven Cities of Quivera (Stich, 67). Although Stich is undoubtedly correct, the Grail theme appears throughout the book. In the instance of the El Greco painting, de Allande sends Latour on a quest for the Grail, but this time it is a personal quest of the Cardinal, not the official Catholic Church quest. This request foreshadows the miscreant priests in New Mexico. Coupled with his grand estate, it appears de Allande is guilty of some of the same excesses as the miscreants.
Upon his appointment Bishop Latour selects his longtime friend, Father Vaillant to accompany him. Latour and Valliant have been assigned the task of establishing a more disciplined Catholic Church in the region. During the three hundred years since the Franciscans had converted the region to Catholicism, the church had become lax and did not follow the dictates of the Church. At the time of Latour’s appointment, the three priests who have parishes in the area have become more worldly and less spiritual. One, Father Gallegos in Albuquerque loves to gamble and eat rich foods. Father Martinez of Taos is a lusty man who has fathered at least one, and probably more children. Father Lucero is a miserly man who overcharges his parishioners for weddings and funerals and hoards the money.
In many ways Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are opposites. Latour is handsome, tall and with a dark complexion. Valliant is short, bowlegged, and ruddy. On meeting him a stranger would conclude “that the Lord had made few uglier men” (Cather, 298) In personality they differ as well. Latour is a scholar, Valliant prefers to be doing something. Latour is more open minded about people’s beliefs while Vaillant wants all Catholics to adhere to a strict interpretation of Roman doctrine. Latour carefully plans his actions, but Vaillant is impulsive. Latour is healthy while Vaillant nearly died from disease while in Ohio. While in New Mexico, he twice becomes ill and nearly dies.
In spite of these differences, or perhaps because of them, Latour and Vaillant have been friends since childhood. Their differences complement each other so they are able to meet challenges. Interestingly, Vaillant is given two white mules, Contento and Angelica that “might pine if they were separated for long. They have never been separated, and have a great affection for each other” (Cather, 314). The relationship between Latour and Vaillant is just the same as that of the mules.
When the two men arrive in Santa Fe, the local priest and Catholic parishioners refuse to recognize their authority. Bishop Latour leaves Father Vaillant in Santa Fe while he travels to Durango, Mexico some 1500 miles away. On the journey, Bishop Latour becomes lost in the desert and is only saved by the people living in Aqua Secreta or hidden water. These people haven’t seen a priest in many years. While there, Latour performs many baptisms and marriages.
When Latour returns to Santa Fe he finds the local priest has resigned and that Father Vaillant has accomplished much as far as gaining the trust of the local people. On the morning of his return Latour hears the Angelus being rung in just the fashion he prefers it. He and Father Vaillant discuss the bell that was used. Vaillant notes that the bell is made from a variety of metals. When Latour notes that the is not entirely silver but a combination of metals. Vaillant is troubled by this because he wants the bell to be pure. Bishop Latour has already begun to see that there is more to the people’s faith than the pure Roman doctrine. He appears to have no trouble with the notion of the mixed metals and points out that the rite of the Angelus is Moorish in origin and not pure Catholicism in the bell made.
Latour and Vaillant begin their work by starting to remove some of the local priests from their positions. When Latour decides to wait before dismissing Martinez because he fears the priest holds a position with the people in the area that would preclude a successful removal. Naturally Vaillant dislikes the decision because of his impetuous nature.
As their missionary work develops Latour begins to realize just how much the local Catholicism has as been changed by the incorporation of many ancient beliefs and traditions. When he and his guide Jacinto are stranded in a snow storm, Jacinto swears the Bishop to secrecy and then takes him to a cave that is used by the locals as a place of worship. The cave contains relics and icons of both the Catholic faith as well as the most ancient traditions of the locals. Just as their ancient relics are hidden underground, deep within their Catholicism are their ancient traditions. Instead of becoming angry at something that many Jesuits might consider heresy Latour honors his promise and begins to realize that the strict party line from Rome doesn’t always serve well in the real world.
In time the Latour and Vaillant become successful in their missionary efforts. The priests who have opposed them lose their power and have died. Vaillant, in particular, gains a reputation of being a hard working man that isn’t afraid to get down among the people and work with them. He is frequently sent on missionary trips which increase his fame and standing among the locals.
As mentioned above, Vaillant has become deathly ill three times. Once while back in Ohio and twice within Death Comes for the Archbishop. He is described as someone who has cheated death and come back to life. This is an interesting reference to the state of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. The Franciscans had established Christianity in the sixteenth century, but without ongoing instruction and care the Church had withered and died. The rogue priests who were in power when Latour and Vaillant arrive in Santa Fe represent another near death of the Church.
After the missionary work has been set in motion and the Church is growing and progressing, Bishop Latour begins to want to build a cathedral. He wants it to be ornate and splendid just like some of the cathedrals in France where he and Vaillant grew up. Vaillant doesn’t understand the need for such a grand building and would prefer a building large enough to be functional, but not so ornate as to deny the poor their needs buy spending the money on a cathedral. Latour however makes his plans for the cathedral. When a wealthy parishioner dies have pledged to give his estate to the Church, Latour works hard to make certain the state comes to the Church.
Interestingly and sadly, when Vaillant is sent to Colorado to minister the miners who are flocking there in search of gold, Latour suggests that he take both of the white mules because they would be lonely and unhappy without each other. It appears that Cather uses this occasion to begin drawing their close relationship Latour and Vaillant had to an end. It appears that Latour has shifted his direction of missionary work for the Church to the building of the cathedral. The Bishop does not quite become obsessed with the building of the cathedral, but it does become the main focus of his life. This change in focus is not like the transformation for the miscreant priests and Cardinal de Allande from priests who have sworn obedience and chastity into men who sought personal gain and comfort.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is an interesting book quite different than Cather’s more familiar books that take place on the plains of Cather’s home state Nebraska. The book provides and interesting account of the efforts of men and women to achieve completeness. It is rich with symbolism and may have been a source of inspiration for Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Certainly Faulkner, one of most renown writers regarded Willa Cather as one of his top five contemporary writers. (Skaggs, 89-90. Death Comes for the Archbishop can be, and ought to be, read and reread on a variety of levels.
Cather, Willa. Later Novels: Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: The Library of America, (1990).
Skaggs, Merrill M. 1997.”Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” The Faulkner Journal 13, 1/2 (Fall 1997): 89-99.
Stich, Klaus P. 1994. “Cather’s ‘Midi Romanesque’: Missionaries, Myth, and the Grail in Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Studies in the Novel 26, 4 (Winter 1994): 57-73.
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