The Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

January 5, 2011
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The Death Comes for the Archbishop
“Where there is great love, there are always great miracles…The miracles of the
church…rest not so much on faces or voices or healing powers coming suddenly near to us from far off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what there is always about us.” (Page 50) This quote from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, published by Random House in 1962, encapsulates the theme of the book about the relationship between religion and love. This book follows the story of Father Jean Marie Latour as he travels to New Mexico in hopes of reforming the religious turmoil that has occurred in the area. Even though the author fully captured the ideals of Catholicism, I found the book unimaginative and unoriginal.
In the novel, Father Jean Marie Latour, a recently appointed Archbishop of New Mexico, travels with his fellow priest and subordinate, Father Joseph Vaillant, to the new territory of New Mexico. There Latour and Vaillant are entrusted with the task of reinvigorating the religion that has been corrupted and manipulated by Spanish priests. As a result, the area was left to decay due to the insubordinate and materialistic clergy. While dealing with this issue, Latour must win the hearts and the faith of the native Indians and Mexicans. He must also overcome the dangers of traveling in an uncharted and unknown area with very few allies. Through his journey, he learns to combine and harmonize two elements, the Catholic doctrine and the New Mexican way of life and successfully builds the first cathedral in New Mexico.
While the book captures the travails of Father Latour, I did not particularly enjoy this book for several reasons. First, it lacks creative ideas behind the story. For instance, the author is overly simplistic in describing critical issues of celibacy, gluttony, and greed. Instead of using descriptive language and explaining the complexity of these issues, she plainly states that they were problems that the Spanish priest suffered. As a result, the book became monotonous and dull. Second, not only was it boring, it was also not memorable. Instead of having an interesting plot line that engages the reader, the book is mainly about historical facts of the reform of New Mexico’s Catholic church. It contains a single theme, restoring traditional religious values and incorporating new elements obtained from the local area. More importantly, I discovered an interesting fact about the novel through further research. The novel was based on a real life priest, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who established the Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Therefore, this is not a historical fiction novel, but rather a biography. Thus, this explains why Cather wrote this book with an emphasis on the historical background as versus a story line that would entertain its readers. However, she does a terrific job in portraying the scenery and the landscapes in New Mexico. For instance, she describes the sun as a “a red ball which threw a copper glow over the pine-covered ridge of mountains.” Here, she paints a clear and vivid description of the area, which contributes to the novel’s exotic setting.

The overall message that Cather conveyed in this novel is assimilation. The traditional French priest had to adapt to the Southwest environment. In doing so, they were able to create a successful merging of two worlds and develop a European-style cathedral in the New Mexican landscape. While the book is descriptive in describing its landscape; it is unentertaining and fails to enrapture the readers in its monotonous plot. In conclusion, I do highly recommend this book to readers looking for a biography about the founder of Saint Francis Cathedral. However, if one is looking for a novel with an engaging and unpredictable story line, this book will leave the readers yearning for some excitement before he or she is put to sleep.

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