Death Comes for the Archbishop
© 1927 Willa Cather
Poor New Mexico — so far from God, so close to the United States. The Pope can’t help the tide of American — and very Protestant — settlement that is sure to follow Polk’s war against Mexico, but the church in the southwest can be strengthened. To that end he dispatches Jean-Marie Latour to Santa Fe, there to serve as bishop. Aided by his faithful friend, Joseph Vaillant, Latour tarries with the people of New Mexico for decades before being buried by a doting multitude. Cather combines beautiful descriptions of the landscape — especially of the Sangre de Cristo mountains — with lovely little stories about the bishop growing to know and love his new parishioners. Theirs is a world of danger, of ferocious storms, unforgiving heat, occasional Apache raids, and plenty of brigands. Worse yet, the Americans are coming, and as they continue gaining land at Mexico’s expense, the bishop’s province grows, stretching from the Rockies to Mexico. He complains, good-naturedly, that it is hard for a poor bishop on a mule to keep pace with the march of history, with thousands of square miles of responsibility placed under his care.
The bishop and his companion compel interest for their gentleness; while he has come to restore discipline in a land where the priests have taken to siring families instead of nurturing the family of the church, he does not rush in where angels fear to tread. He realizes he is in a wholly new environment, and sees in the Indians — the Apache, the Hopi, the Pueblo, and other peoples who were never reached by Spanish missionaries or forgot them — a civilization with wisdom and conviction as deep as his. He is awed by the ancientness of the land and the people upon it, When he is wronged, as he is by a schismatic priest who refuses to accept oversight, he is still quick to forgive. The sheer abundance of tenderness here, as generously proportioned as the western skies, make it a perfectly lovely read — and all the more when Cather’s brilliant descriptive writing is taken into account, creating an image of the Southwest with beauty that penetrates even the viewers’ bones.