What I’m Reading: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Okay, I’ve fallen a little behind on my book logging, so let’s get started. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop has been calling to me from our shelves for years now, so I finally got around to reading it. What a beautifully written book!

The main characters are the French Bishop Jean Latour and his good friend Father Joseph Vaillant, who come as missionaries in 1848 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, following the Mexican-American War to lead a new Catholic diocese that’s been split off from the old one in Durango, Mexico. (Apparently, they are loosely based on two actual missionaries, though the book is a work of fiction.) The area of the new diocese is in wild country, remote even from Durango, and local priests have run things more or less without guidance for centuries. At best, the priests have operated without resources or advice, doing what they can; at worst, they’ve operated their local communities like mini-despotisms, perhaps taking local Mexican women as wives or concubines or using local Indians as free labor.

Bishop Latour is determined to clean things out, but though he has the authority of the church behind him, he really doesn’t have any more in resources than any of the local, entrenched priests. He is forced to rely on his will and sense of righteousness as well as his secret weapon: his vicar, Father Vaillant. Father Vaillant is physically small but possessed of an incredible force of personality, compassion for people, and purity of faith instantly recognizable to all who meet him. He is able to bring entire Indian villages over to Christianity after a few days’ stay, and travels the country carrying out spiritual missions for Bishop Latour.

The center of the book is really the relationship between Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, probably the greatest account of deep male friendship I’ve ever read. Superficially, the cool-headed, intellectual, and sometimes even sarcastic Bishop Latour seems to have little to in common with the fiery, energetic, and direct Father Vaillant. But in fact, they discovered when they met in seminary back in France that they complement each other almost perfectly, each providing what the other lacks.

For instance, in one scene, the canny Bishop Latour decides to keep on a corrupt local priest, Padre Martinez, who has married several women and owns numerous farms worked with the labor of his congregation. Father Vaillant urges him to dismiss the old goat immediately, but Vaillant sees that Martinez, despite his personal failings, has built up a strong and faithful congregation. He decides to wait a year or so, when he can get just the right man from his home seminary in France to take his place. Father Vaillant cannot stand the thought, but in the end he recognizes the Latour’s wisdom.

The book is told mainly in little anecdotes, reminding me a lot of the other Willa Cather book I’ve read, My Antonia. Sometimes these anecdotes are humorous, other times moving. Sometimes they’re not even about the current characters at all, but merely to give a bit of fascinating background illustration, such as the tale of Bishop Latour hears of an old Spanish priest who had served decades before in an Indian village built on top of a mesa. The priest had a quick temper and one evening beaned his serving boy with a pewter cup after the boy had spilled a well-prepared meal. The blow killed the boy, and afterwards the Indians, who had accepted Christianity but not yet lost touch with their old ways, gathered in the main square to decide the priest’s fate. When they came for him, the priest did not resist or beg for his life, but accepted the judgment as the Indians carried him to the edge of the mesa and tossed him off.

I think what most impresses me about Death Comes for the Archbishop is its resistance to  facile comparisons and easy answers. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are complex, fully-rounded characters, good at heart but capable of weakness, and even the bad characters have some redeeming qualities. The Americans who gradually filter into the story have little understanding or patience for the old Mexican and Indian world they encounter and conquer, but even that is presented less as a wrong than a sad but probably inevitable passing of ways.

Willa Cather is by no means naive about this–the Catholic Church under Bishop Latour in some ways facilitates this takeover by the incoming Americans–but it also softens it, provides a channel of communication for local communities, even helps the Navajo win back their ancestral lands after the US Army drives them to a new area not suited for their way of life. Whatever their mistakes, in the end the tremendous compassion and faithfulness of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant must be considered a force for good in the world.

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