Forgotten Classic: Death Comes for the Archbishop

In Death Comes For the Archbishop, Willa Cather takes her readers softly by the hand and leads them through the lives of two Jesuit priests as they traverse the mountains and mesas of the Southwest in the mid 1800s, ministering to the people of those golden realms.

Feeding on a long-time friendship, Father Latour and Father Valliant leave the comforts of their childhood parishes and seek their way through the maze of rugged terrain and the ancient traditions of the Native American and Mexican people.

The story is framed by the ringing of the Angelus on an early morning in Santa Fe as Father Latour, upon awakening, hears the bell, "full and clear with something bland and suave, each note floating through the air like a globe of silver." The sound reverberates with echoes of Rome and of the Moors, yet is knit to the white-washed walls and adobe shades of his current abode, and he smiles in the sweet spot of his enduring faith.

The book is constructed like a memoir, a series of vignettes. The two priests, so different in nature but bonded by a deep reverence for humanity and an abiding sense of justice (as well as a wicked sense of humor), weave their way through the lives of their sprawling congregation. Father Latour is reflective, aristocratic, intellectual and cautious with social structures. Father Valliant, ever the extrovert, hops to each new challenge with gusto and a wagon that is filled with an altar, supplies, rosaries, medals and unflagging optimism. Both thrive on the belief that "where there is great love, there are miracles." Father Latour explains that divine love refines our vision to see potential that seems extraordinary but was present always.

Their travels take them through sandstorms, sleet, snow, wind, rain, treacherous ravines and mesas. Father Latour is saved by his Spanish guide, Jacinto, by sheltering in a dark, looming cave that seemed steeped in mystery with the roar of a great underground river in the distance, the smell of decay and whispers of ceremonial, secret sacrifice.

The novel glitters with stories of corrupt priests who gamble, drink, oppress, father children and harvest the powerless after years without ecclesial supervision. In a drunken rage, Balthazar throws a goblet at the head of a clumsy servant killing him and gets deposed by the natives by being heaved over the side of a cliff. A swift, clean end to years of oppression!

Suffusing all these stories is Cather’s passionate painting of the landscape with lush, loving tones of sepia and green, taking us through canyons and pueblos, smelling the juniper and tamarisk, feeling the wind and sky, with a vast sweeping sense of peace.

Cather writes, "It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape and not stand out against it." So it was, when death finally comes to Father Latour, he goes quietly surrounded by locals, traders, clergy - the human family, undistinguished by class or creed, drawn together in lines of simple faith and love.

It was the death of a man who lived well a life of service and was finally released "into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning."

Thank you, Willa Cather.

--Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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