Death Comes for the Archbishop is a set of short sketches of the life of Father Latour, bishop of New Mexico during the time after New Mexico passed into American hands. Father Latour, then a priest in southern Canada, travels incognito to have a conversation with some of the Cardinals in which he convinces the Cardinals to make Latour bishop of the new diocese by explaining hiss fervent desire to bring the right practicing of the faith to the people of New Mexico, a desire which he labors his whole life to achieve. This work is chronicled through the sketches, although the sketches focus on the character and personalities of the bishop (Father Latour), his vicar (Father Vaillant), the corrupt priests in the diocese, and the native Indians and Mexicans.
The first set of sketches are an introduction to the country, which Bishop Latour must cross to get his papers from the bishop of the former undivided territory, and its people. They also show Father Latour’s devotion in bringing the right practise of the Catholic faith to an area whose bishops have neglected the proper teaching. Latour sees that people as being essentially Catholic in their heart (despite an observation later that the Indians incurably added the worship of God to their indigenous practices) but needing instruction and an opportunity to practise their faith. He is fully devoted to the cause of bringing people to the church. The sketches introduce the character of Latour—refined, devoted to God and Mary, quiet but unrelenting. Also, his Vicar, who is bold and effective at accomplishing what he wants. Likewise, we see the people of the diocese as desiring to celebrate Mass and having marriages blessed by the Church.
The second set of sketches sees Father Vaillant and sometimes Father Latour travelling through the parishes as itinerate priests. We see a bit of the character of the current priests, who are rebellious, womanizing, and greedy. For now, though, the task is to bring the sacraments to the people. They also rescue a Mexican woman from her American husband who badly mistreats her and kills travellers; she later serves the nuns at the church in Santa Fe and lives a peaceful life.
The third set reveals some of the Indian life and way of thinking. We meet Jacinto, who guides the Bishop on various travels throughout his life. He is quiet, but prepared for anything. Thoughtful and helpful. Although he retains Indian beliefs, he appreciates Latour’s character. In contrast, we are told the story of Fray Baltazar, a priest on the mesa-top of Ácoma in the 1600s who treated the Indians as vassals and built a worldly villa using the Indian women to water his garden by carrying water from the well below the mesa. Eventually his love of food becomes his undoing and he accidentally kills one of his Indian servants by throwing a cup at his head. The Indians, who had tolerated him until then, swiftly carry out justice.
The next sketch is similar and it reveals something of the mystery of the Indian religions. Father Latour is travelling with Jacinto and they are caught in a blizzard. Jacinto brings him to a cavern in the mountains he knows about and they survive the night, but Jacinto is very cautious about a certain hole in the rock. In later talks with Kit Carson and a trader, Latour discovers that the Indians of the area worship a snake, which they are rumored to bring into the village for certain ceremonies. One of the Indian women once asked the trader’s mother to shelter her child, since she was terrified that it was going to be fed to the snake. The reader is left with the strong conclusion that the cavern that Latour spent the night was one of the sacred places of the Indians, and that Jacinto was cautious with the hole because that was where the snake was kept.
Having set the diocese in order in terms of religious observances, Latour now focuses on reforming the practices of the priests. Father Martinez, the priest at Taos, who had greeted the new Bishop with a rebellion when he first stepped foot in Santa Fe, needs to be dealt with. Not only is he rebellious, but he also is quite the womanizer and does not live with any sort of the self-restraint one expects of a priest. Father Latour sends Father Vaillant to communicate his requirements for the life of a priest, which Martinez rejects. Shortly afterwards, he is excommunicated and starts his own rival church, along with a priest from a neighboring parish. This priest is a thorough miser, loving money to the point that it gives him a strength to kill a thief, even though he himself is very old. As he lies dying, he is still fearful that someone will take his money. The schism continues until the death of the two priests.
A brief interlude shows Father Latour intervening in the case of Doña Isabella. She is a woman that the priest understands and appreciates deeply. When her husband dies there is some dispute about the will, but in order to receive what is rightfully hers, she must testify her age in court. She would rather maintain the fiction that she is ten years younger than she actually is and lose the case, resulting in her impoverishment. Father Latour with great tact and feminine understanding creates a situation where she can reveal enough of her age to win the case but still be able to maintain the fiction of her age.
The seventh set of sketches intertwines Father Vaillant with an Indian of Latour’s acquiantance, Eusabio, and a Mexican slave to show the character of Father Latour’s interactions with his diocese. Vaillant is filled with a desire to evangelize to the people of the diocese, and although this inconveniences Father Latour, he regrettfully lets him go. Some time after his departure, the bishop is unable to sleep. He goes to the church to pray, where he finds a woman who is a slave of an American who refuses to let her go to Mass. He brings to Mary’s altar to pray. She is overjoyed at being able to celebrate religion and he experiences a deeply spiritual understanding of what Mary means. In-between-times, Father Latour reminisces on his friendship with Vaillant, who is so different from him—rash where Latour is conservative, ascetic instead of enjoying comforts, enjoying people instead of tending to be inconvenienced by them. Finally, we see Father Latour understanding how the Indians and the Americans interact with the landscape—the Indian reveres nature and leaves it unchanged, while the American must put his mark upon the landscape.
Finally, the bishop grows old. He is able to supervise the building of a beautiful, French-style cathedral in Santa Fe, achieving his dream of building a proper monument to God. We discover that Vaillant was called to evangelize to the gold-loving prospectors in Colorado, where he is tireless and effective in his efforts. As the bishop’s mind grows weak, we see a flashback of how Latour took Vaillant under his wing at the seminary and was able to gently persuade him to follow his heart to join him as a missionary to America despite Vaillant’s discomfort at his family’s displeasure. Finally, full of comforting memories of his relationships, the bishop dies peacefully and is mourned by all who know him.
This is a surprisingly beautiful book. The descriptions of the landscape are vivid and the characters of the people are painted simply, elegantly, and effectively. There is little in the way of over-arching plot, yet the narrative is compelling. Like all Literature, the book advances through character growth rather than through plot. The reader understands the characters more and more thoroughly as the narrative progresses, so that by the end, the reader celebrates the character of this priest whose heart loves the New Mexican people and desires that they become truly Catholic. Interestingly, as I was reading this book, my normally quick reading slowed considerably, to match to unhurried pace of the narrative. A fast read would miss the gorgeous descriptions, yet the pace did not feel slow, just unhurried, like the characters and landscape.
I was truly disturbed by the description of the Catholic values, however. The description of the priests value the Catholic church and Mary over God. In one place the Church is described as Mary’s church, which is just blasphemy: in Matt 16:18, Jesus says “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. It’s Jesus'—God’s—Church, not Mary’s. Mary is consistently effectively equated with God—she even has her own altar at the church in Santa Fe. Granted, it is less prominent, but one only builds an altar for a god, and this makes Mary a goddess in the practice of this, hopefully hypothetical, church. Vaillant often prays to Mary, going so far as to say “grant me this boon, O Mary, my hope” (Book 7.1). The phrase “my hope” is repeatedly used of God in the Psalms. One prays to a god, and using phrases addressed to God confirms her status as a deity. In fact, Vaillant is described by “to Her he had consecrated his waking hours.” Biblically consecration is to God, and we are to give ourselves to God and no other. And in Book 7.2, Cather writes “Only a woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.” By elevating Mary to deity, these priests are breaking the first commandmant: “you shall have no other gods besides me.” Even worse, Vaillant sees her as “Alma Mater redemptoris,” “our redemptive Mother.” Mary isn’t divine, and she didn’t die for our sins; saying so is simply blasphemy. Even though the idea of a femine figure may be comforting, especially to women, the Bible unequivocally condemns this view as idolatry.
I sincerely hope that neither Willa Cather nor the Catholic Church endorses these views, because they will have a rude awakening when they stand before God. I hope that they are trusting in Jesus, who was both God and Man, who had the same nature as us yet never sinned, who, as God, could die in our place for our sins, so that we may be with God for all eternity. The fact is that Mary is not divine, that she cannot save us any more than the idols that Israel worshipped (see Jer 10:1-10) But from what I consistently hear regarding the Catholic Church, I fear that many think they are Christian when they are worshipping the wrong God.
Other than the completely false characterization of what God wants His Church to be, the book is truly a beautiful book. The descriptions are magnificent, the characters are elegantly painted, and the noble character of the priests, native Mexicans, and the Indians comes across very clearly. Perhaps Willa Cather is showing the character that true Christians have, and in this point she is right. Certainly it is a moving book that has the deepest visual descriptions I have read in a long time. A beautiful and unhurried portrait of the New Mexican territory, and a book that will definitely be read by many future generations.
Edit (2023): While I still hold the same views about Mary’s (lack of divinity), the moralizing seriously detracts from the review. It is not even good moralizing, it paints God fairly one-dimensionally: Jesus died for the sin of idolatry, too. And Israel worshipped high places for centuries (and plenty of good kings were criticized for not destroying the high places, but were still evaluated as good kings). My evaluation now is definitely a 10, as this is a book that still sticks in my memory as a beautiful story.
- “About the middle of the afternoon Jacinto pointed out Laguna in the distance, lying, apparently, in the midst of bright yellow waves of high sand dunes—yellow as ochre. As they approached, Father Latour found these were petrified sand dunes; long waves of soft, gritty yellow rock, shining and bare except for a few lines of dark juniper that grew out of the weather cracks,—little trees, and very, very old. At the foot of this sweep of rock waves was the blue lake, a stone basin full of water, from which the pueblo took its name.” (Book 3.2)
- “Certainly about their [the Indians] behaviour there was nothing boyish in the American sense, nor even in the European sense. Jacinto was never, by any chance, naïf; he was never taken by surprise. One felt that his training, whatever it had been, had prepared him to met any situation which might confront him. He was as much at home in the Bishop’s study as in his own pueblo—and he was never too much at home anywhere” (Book 3.2)
- “The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos [a self-satisfied gambler with whom Father Latour had, on this meeting, simply expressed mild surprise at his transgressions], the right tone with Padre Jesus [a good priest whose treasured wooden parrot Father Latour had naturally been drawn to and admired], and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant’s, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.” (Book 3.2)
- “Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of a wave.” (Book 3.3)
- After Fray Baltazar had thrown the cup at his servant, one of the visiting Padres examined him. “‘Muerto,’ he whispered. With that he plucked his junior priest by the sleeve, and the two bolted across the garden without another word and made for the head of the stairway. In a moment the Padres of Laguna and Isleta unceremoniously followed their example. With remarkable speed the four guests go them down from the rock, saddled their mules, and urged them across the plain. ... For a moment he [Fray Baltazar] entertained the idea of following them; but a temporary flight would only weaken his position, and a permanent evacuation was not to be thought of. ... The pueblo down there was much too quiet. ... Now the Padre began to feel alarmed, to wish he had gone down that stairway with the others, while there was yet time. He wished he were anywhere in the world but on that rock. ... Moonrise from the loggia was an impressive sight, even to this Brother who was not over impressionable. But to-night he wished he could keep the moon from coming up through the floor of the desert,—the moon was the clock which began things in the pueblo. He watched with horror for that golden rim against the deep blue velvet of the night. ... The Ácoma people told afterwards that he did not suppliate or struggle; had he done so, they might have dealt more cruelly with him. But he knew his Indians, and that once they had collectively made up their pueblo mind... [sic] Morevover, he was a proud old Spaniard, and had a certain fortitude lodged in his well-nourished body. He was accustomed to command, not to entreat, and he retained the respect of his Indian vassals to the end.” (Book 3.4)
- “In the working of silver or drilling of turquoise the Indians had exhaustive patience; upon their blankets and belts and ceremonial robes they lavished their skill and pains. But their conception of decoration did not extend to the landscape. They seemed to have none of the European’s desire to ‘master’ nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accomodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from and inherited caution and respect. It was if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse.” (Book 7.4)