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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind long after you're gone? This is the question Willa Cather's (1873-1947) character Father Jean Marie Latour considers in her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop when he's asked to establish a Catholic diocese in the newly annexed region of New Mexico. Ultimately, Latour restores the Catholic religion to a position of honor, supports the native Navajo tribe as best he can, and builds a beautiful cathedral in Santa Fe. When death does come for the archbishop, he goes peacefully and the natives celebrate his life. Death Comes for the Archbishop explores themes such as the nuances of religion and empathy vs. alienation in an 1850s setting.

Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1927, was Cather's sixth novel. Her status as a major American writer had already been established with her earlier Great Plain novels, including O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). Like Cather's previous novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop was very popular and sold nearly 90,000 copies within two years.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a fictionalized account of historical figures Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf. Both men were French-Catholic clergymen who came to the United States as missionary priests in the mid-19th century. Like his fictional counterpart Father Jean Marie Latour, Lamy served as the first Archbishop of Santa Fe. As in the novel, Machebeuf followed Lamy to New Mexico and later became a priest in Colorado.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Priest in church, StudySmarter

Fig 1: Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on the lives of two real Catholic priests.

Death Comes for the Archbishop does not follow one plot line but traces various events in the clergymen's lives as they attempt to restore the Catholic faith in New Mexico. They face resistance from the already-established Mexican priests and the indigenous people, who already have a spirituality of their own. The novel fictionalizes much of Lamy's and Machebeuf's lives in the United States. Cather also includes other historical figures, such as Manuel Antonio Chaves, Kit Carson, and Pope Gregory XVI. Because the novel is so drenched in Catholic themes and history, many readers assume Cather was Catholic; she was actually Baptist and later Episcopalian.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Summary

In the prologue, Father Jean Marie Latour, a young French priest, learns the Vatican has chosen him to restore the Catholic faith in the newly-annexed region of New Mexico. Catholicism has existed in the area for centuries, but it has become tarnished by corrupt priests who manipulate the religion and its practitioners. The task is no small order, but Latour is optimistic and up to the challenge.

Before receiving his new orders, Latour had been serving in Sandusky, Ohio. He travels to New Mexico with his friend and fellow clergyman Father Joseph Vaillant. The journey is long and difficult; with no railway that far west, Latour and Vaillant have to take steamboats. The trip alone takes roughly a year, and by the time they arrive in New Mexico, the men have lost most of their supplies to a shipwreck.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Landscape of New Mexico, StudySmarter

Fig 2: Latour and Vaillant move to the harsh landscape of New Mexico.

In New Mexico, the clergymen find the task of establishing the diocese to be complicated. They have limited resources and no way to travel except for two mules obtained by Vaillant. The Mexican priests who have had control of the region for centuries refuse to acknowledge that New Mexico has become a part of the United States. They are hostile to Latour's efforts and plan to retain their authority. The infant diocese also receives resistance from the Native American groups, as they already have their own religious customs and do not want Catholicism.

Early in their time in New Mexico, Latour and Vaillant stay in an older man's house for a night to escape a storm. His wife, Magdalena, saves their lives by warning them Buck Scales has murdered travelers before. The clergymen escape with Magdalena, who is abused by her husband. Buck Scales is later hanged for his crimes. Magdalena begins working with Latour, helping the nuns whom Latour brings over from Europe that open a school.

The name Magdalena derives from Mary Magdalene, a female Christian saint who traveled with Jesus and witnessed his crucifixion. How might Magdalena be a symbolic character?

Despite their obstacles, Latour and Vaillant are passionate about their cause and are largely successful. They replace priests who exemplify the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust with priests who abide by the church's teachings. Padre Gallegos in Albuquerque, for example, is a gambler. Padre Antonio Jose Martinez of Taos rejects the priestly vow of celibacy and has many children. And Padre Lucero of Arroyo Hondo is greedy and hoards money. Martinez and Lucero are indignant when they are replaced and plan to form their own church. They are stripped of their rights of priesthood and die soon after.

Vaillant first replaces Gallegos as a priest in New Mexico and is later sent to Colorado to serve the influx of people entering the state during the Gold Rush. It is a bittersweet goodbye for Latour, who knows his closest friend will never return to work in New Mexico again. Vaillant only returns to Santa Fe to raise money for his church, recover from the many illnesses that befall him, and attend religious ceremonies (such as Latour getting elevated to Archbishop). Vaillant's life in Colorado is difficult, and he is called to Rome to explain his financial debt. He dies shortly thereafter.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Gold Rush ghost town, StudySmarter

Fig. 3: Vaillant serves as the priest to ramshackle towns during the Gold Rush.

Latour lives to see the cathedral's completion in Santa Fe, which he dreamed about his whole career. After investors fell through and years of planning, it is Latour's proudest accomplishment. His faithful followers pray inside the cathedral for him when his health fails. On his deathbed, Latour thinks about his friendship with Vaillant and how Latour had to convince him to travel to America. Vaillant was hesitant, but Latour is happy he agreed to follow. When Latour dies, his body is laid by the high altar of the cathedral.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Characters

The novel centers around the main characters Father Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant as they interact with minor characters while establishing a Catholic diocese in New Mexico.

Father Jean Marie Latour

The Archbishop of the title, Father Jean Marie Latour is a young French priest that puts his faith and mission above all else. Despite being very religious, Latour is depicted as a regular man with flaws and shortcomings, not an idealized symbol. His closest friend is Vaillant, to whom Latour is drawn because of their differences. While Vaillant is charismatic and outgoing, Latour is reserved and down to earth. His name is French, literally translating to "the tower," which symbolizes his reserved but indomitable spirit. Latour's biggest goal is to build a cathedral in Santa Fe and preserve his legacy.

Father Joseph Vaillant

Latour's closest friend and fellow clergyman, Father Joseph Vaillant travels to New Mexico with Latour to establish the new Catholic diocese. Initially apprehensive about leaving France, Vaillant does a lot of good in the United States. Like Latour, Vaillan's name is symbolic—it means valiant and courageous in French, which reflects Vaillant's extroversion and determination. Vaillant is outspoken and impulsive, the direct opposite of Latour. Vaillant makes many friends and uses his charisma and charm to get donations for the church. But he is also prone to bouts of illness and is constantly hurt. When there is need for a new priest in Colorado, Vaillant answers the call and leaves his friend behind in Santa Fe.

Magdalena

A Mexican woman trapped in an abusive marriage, Magdalena saves Latour and Vaillant from her murderous husband. After her husband's death, Magdalena joins their cause, helping the nuns Latour and Vaillant bring from Europe.

Buck Scales

Magdalena's much-older husband, Buck Scales kills visitors who stay in his house. He plans to kill Latour and Vaillant before Magdalena saves them. He hangs for his crimes.

Padre Gallegos, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez, and Padre Lucero

Corrupt Mexican priests, Padre Gallegos, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez, and Padre Lucero abuse their power and live sinfully. Latour removes them from their positions when his diocese takes control of the region.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Analysis

One of the main issues the Catholic clergymen face in Death Comes for the Archbishop is the cultural and religious differences between themselves and those who already live in New Mexico when they arrive in the region. To some degree, Latour's and Vaillant's mission is to disrupt the lives of each person in New Mexico. The French priests want to convert the indigenous peoples, replace priests who preach Catholicism but live disorderly lives, and assert their influence over the region. Latour and Vaillant are essentially attempting to uproot 300+ years of the status quo and bring New Mexico to a new kind of order.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Catholic chalice, crucifix, and other symbols, StudySmarter

Fig. 4: Latour and Vaillant struggle to bring Catholicism to a place where it is unwanted.

Latour and Vaillant are so successful because they respond to resistance with patience and understanding rather than violence. They recognize it will be dehumanizing, and quite frankly impossible, to force their religion onto indigenous communities. Instead, they attempt to bridge the gap between the two cultures and find some common ground. Latour notices how racism and prejudice run rampant in New Mexican society. He offers spiritual and emotional aid during their time of need. Latour sympathizes with the Native American communities, realizing he has no power to help them against the American government. Latour also recognizes the way the natives have been wronged in the past:

He was already convinced that neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fe understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind." (4.2.29)

Both Mexican and white missionaries were unsuccessful in converting indigenous people because they had no wish to understand and connect with them. Instead, they were happy to manipulate their religion and throw it over the New Mexico region. Not living the Christianly ideals of neighborhood, tolerance, and love, the previous missionaries didn't treat the indigenous community as people but rather as projects to be completed.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Flag of the Navajo Nation, StudySmarter

Fig. 5: Latour respects the Navajo people and their indigenous identity.

Latour, on the other hand, recognizes the dignity of indigenous culture. When Latour and his indigenous guide, Jacinto, get trapped in a cave, Latour sees evidence of indigenous rituals. Jacinto beseeches Latour not to reveal the secret spot, and Latour agrees. He preaches religious tolerance, an end to racism, and neighborly love. Latour is successful because he is willing to learn from past mistakes and forge a better future for everyone, not just Catholics.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Criticism

Since its publication in the early 20th century, Death Comes for the Archbishop has received critical acclaim as one of Cather's best novels. Unlike her previous novels, including My Antonia, the religious characters in Death Comes for the Archbishop are open-minded, dynamic, and ambiguous.

Latour and Vaillant are generally good men, dedicated to their mission, but they're also not without their flaws. Latour, for example, builds the cathedral with much emphasis placed on the grandeur of the appearance. In some ways, he could be considered vain and materialistic. Vaillant, meanwhile, tends to manipulate people into doing what he wants. Still, the priests are generally presented as good, empathetic, and moral, as they genuinely strive to better the community.

Can you think of any religious figures you've read about in other books? From your experience, are priests generally depicted as moral or corrupt figures in Western literature? Why might that be the case?

Critics have also viewed Latour as a non-binary character in reference to gender roles. Without very many female characters at all (besides the liberated Magdalena), Latour shoulders much of the feminine emotional work of the novel. He nurtures the other characters and figuratively gives birth to a new religious/social culture in Santa Fe. As literary critic Jennifer A. Smith writes, Latour "oscillates between norms of femininity and masculinity."1

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Key takeaways

  • Death Comes for the Archbishop was written by Willa Cather and published in 1927.
  • It is based on real historical figures: French priests Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, who restored the Catholic faith in the newly-annexed region of New Mexico.
  • The novel takes place around the 1850s in New Mexico.
  • Some main themes include religion's nuances and empathy vs. alienation.
  • Latour's character can be examined from a religious lens as well as a gender one.

References

  1. Smith, Jennifer A. "Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop". The Explicator. 63 (2). 2005.

Frequently Asked Questions about Death Comes for the Archbishop

The novel centers around the life of Archbishop Latour until his death.

He is from France.

Willa Cather wrote Death Comes to the Archbishop.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in the 1850s, soon after the United States annexed New Mexico.

Final Death Comes for the Archbishop Quiz

Question

Who wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop

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Answer

Willa Cather

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Question

True or false: Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on historical figures.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Where is Death Comes for the Archbishop set?

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Answer

New Mexico.

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Question

What is Death Comes for the Archbishop about? 

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Answer

Death Comes for the Archbishop follows two priests as they work to establish a Catholic diocese and restore Catholicism in the newly annexed region of New Mexico. 

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Question

What obstacles does Latour face in New Mexico? 

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Answer

Limited supplies.

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Question

Who is Latour's closest friend and fellow priest? 

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Answer

Father Joseph Vaillant

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Question

What does Magdalena do? 

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Answer

Magdalena saves the priests from being murdered by her husband. 

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What is Latour's biggest dream for the church in New Mexico? 

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Answer

To build a grand cathedral in Santa Fe. 

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Question

Where is Vaillant sent after his time in Mexico? 

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Answer

The ramshackle towns in Colorado during the Gold Rush.

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True or false: Latour is largely successful in restoring Catholicism? 

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Answer

True.

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Question

Who is the archbishop of the title? 

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Answer

Father Jean Marie Latour.

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What does Latour remember about Vaillant while the former is on his deathbed? 

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Answer

Vaillant was hesitant to come to America but the two men resolved to go together.

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Why are Latour and Vaillant such believable characters? 

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Answer

They are complicated men, who have both positive and negative qualities, instead of untouchable religious symbols. 

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True or false: Latour attempts to force religion onto the indigenous people?

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Answer

False.

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Question

What are the main themes? 

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Answer

The nuances of religion. 

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