Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

“Wherever there was a French priest, there should be a garden of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers”—the telltale signs of civilized life.

In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop two French Jesuit missionaries arrive in the American Southwest to revive the Catholic faith and evangelize the Mexicans and Indians, Catholics who were once taught but have lapsed and do not live their faith seriously. As the priests bring the Sacraments to the small villages, baptize the children, and sanctify the marriages of couples who have lived together and founded families without the blessing of the Church, the Jesuits realize that their missionary work requires other forms of education besides religious instruction. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant as Catholic missionaries to the New World also bring culture and civilization to a primitive world. Wherever the Catholic faith flourishes, the quality of life also improves, and people learn the art of living well rather than merely surviving. In the minds of the two Jesuits, “Wherever there was a French priest, there should be a garden of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers”—the telltale signs of civilized life, indeed.

Discovering a hundred-year-old bell in the basement of a church, Father Vaillant finds men to build a scaffold and to raise the bell to swing on beams. He introduces the bell to order the day with the regular tolling of its music. To an unstructured world lacking basic organization, the priests bring order, discipline, and regularity. When the Mexicans insist that the priest baptize the children first because “The men are all in the field,” Bishop Latour insists, “A man can stop work to be married.” He refuses to grant this unorthodox request out of a love for the moral order: “the marriages first, the baptisms afterward; that order is Christian. I will baptize the children tomorrow morning, and their parents will at least have been married over night.” The presence of the tolling bell likewise introduces the proper time and place for prayers throughout the day. The productive use of the hours of the day for work and prayer, a time and place for everything, and the logical succession and priority of events elevates the lives of these simple people who do not know how to govern their lives productively.

Willa+CatherThe priests lament the lack of olive oil in the Southwest (“here ‘oil’ means something to grease the wheels of wagons!”) and complain of the scarcity of green vegetables and the absence of lettuce. In their minds there is no such thing as “a proper soup without leeks,” and the art of living requires more than the daily fare of beans and roots: “Surely we must time to make a garden,” Father Vaillant observes, and he hopes also to plant vineyards. The Bishop’s own garden provides him the most enjoyable recreation, and he grows fruit that surpasses the delicious produce of California: cherries, apricots, apples, pears, and quinces: “He urged the new priests to plant fruit trees wherever they went, and to encourage the Mexicans to add fruit to their starchy diet.” The priests’ interest in gardens, orchards, and vineyards reveals the Church’s concern for all the human needs of man, both body and soul. The Church’s missionary work teaches not only the truths that lead to eternal life but also the truths that offer the “abundant” life that Christ promised. Fruitfulness, abundance, and multiplication distinguish Christian culture that makes life beautiful as well as good and adorns life with what the bishop calls “la poesie.

Despite living in primitive conditions amid poor people, the two Jesuits bring beauty and art to the stark, sparse world that surrounds them. Riding through the Rio Grande valley and gazing at a yellow hill, Bishop Latour admires a particular golden color of “the chip of a yellow rock that lay in his hand” and then announces to Father Vaillant, “That hill, Blanchet, is my cathedral.” He already has in mind the style of architecture he recalls from the old palace of the popes in Avignon—a cathedral in the tradition of the Romanesque rather than “one of those horrible structures they are putting up in the Ohio cities.” The bishop will hire the best stone cutters in France to build the edifice, and he cannot imagine another ugly church on American soil when the Church’s great architectural tradition offers its treasures for models. The Church cultivates the art of the beautiful and acknowledges the power of symbolism as a road that leads to God, fully aware, in St. Paul’s words, that “the invisible things of God are known by the things that are visible.”

The Church also enriches life by its schools and its love of learning. Bishop Latour brings to the New World an order of teaching nuns to bless the young with the gift of education and the life of the mind. Noticing the great infant mortality rate in the village of Pecos, the bishop learns of the dark superstitions of these Indians who worship serpents and sacrifice infants to their false god. Bishop Latour knows that the Church must bring the light of reason to primitive people in addition to the light of faith to conquer the darkness of ignorance, their belief in ancient superstitions that “their minds will go round and round in the same old ruts till Judgment Day.” The Church also combats the heresies that have evolved in the course of time like the false doctrine of Father Martinez that claims the American Catholic Church is autonomous with its own native customs and traditions: “We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church…. We pay a filial respect to the person of the Holy Father, but Rome has no authority here.”

The Jesuits, then, bring to the New World what the Church always brings with the Gospel—a human way of life that raises man from the primitive to the refined, from the ignorant and superstitious to the rational and educated, from the meager and the dreary to the abundant and the beautiful. The Church concerns herself with the whole man, body and soul, and performs both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in its evangelization. As Bishop Latour reviews his whole life in the Southwest as Bishop of Santa Fe, he sees gardens, schools, a great cathedral, and a living faith revived by two priests whose experience in the Southwest taught them that “The faith, in that wild frontier, is alike a buried treasure…. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to set free those souls in bondage.” The barren land they found devoid of fruit, vegetables, and vineyards not only produced peaches and grapes but also a great harvest of souls.

Mitchell Kalpakgian


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

  • Don

    From my office window I look down upon the campus from which Willa Cather graduated – University of Nebraska. Only one of the buildings that stood when she attended still stands – but it is a nice reminder of a gentle time.

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  • cordy fan

    The essay is romantic anecdotal idealism…but where is the Catholic country that embodies this. We as Catholics are forever praising ourselves blogworldwide…but the OT says, ” Do not praise thyself but let another’s lips praise thee”. Which leads us to google. Google “best countries to live in” or be elderly in or get health care in or get an education in. Be prepared for those Protestant Scandinavian countries again and again and again. Our Luxumberg will make some lists. Our predominantly Catholic Central America makes the wrong list as does several northern predominantly Catholic South American countries….as in crime central. Brazil and the Phillipines not only have street dwelling children but relatedly, they have high rates of child trafficing. We are wearing Thomas Kinkaide glasses in our imagination.

    • Robert_Caritas

      First off, no contemporary Western European country can any longer be defined by its religion, since they have almost no influence on public life – so your examples don’t work. Poor countries are hard to analyze, because they suffer so much today from the global markets.

      But looking at the past, we can easily see which Western European countries are known to have the liveliest and most colorful traditional lifestyles and cultures. Hands down anyone would easily admit: Spain, Italy, France, Ireland, and Austria (and also Bavaria in Germany was mentioned to me as having a very rich traditional culture), etc.

      So to say that Catholicism sows the seeds of joyful living and rich cultures is by no means a stretch.

      • cordy fan

        Spain has 25% unemployment. Colorful?

    • hawc2133

      I respectfully counter that the Scandinavian countries and most of Northern Europe, while perhaps protestant in name, are now functionally secular/pagan.

      • cordy fan

        Their culture is the result of centuries….whatever the merits or demerits of your reading of hearts.

    • Aldo Elmnight

      “Our predominantly Catholic Central America ”
      Central America is Catholic is name only. Decades ago they embraced neo marxism and liberation theology (led by the Jesuits) and do not adhere to subsidiarity. That is the reason they are all failed states and nominally Catholic.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Please keep in mind that Willa Cather is not a Catholic praising Catholics but a Protestant–a small caveat to consider when you say “We as Catholics are forever praising ourselves . . . .”

  • These are such a different breed of Jesuit than I am used to today. The Jesuits in my time in the Pacific Northwest would have said “Baptise the child if we must, what does it matter if the parents are married? Who Am I to Judge?”

    • hawc2133

      Amen – sad but true.

  • Dr. Robert Schwartz

    Whether the book by Cather is history or novel, it is a truthful rendition of the Catholic Church, with its teachings, its guidance and its self-sacrifice on behalf of others. Whether during the 16th or the 21st century, the Apostolic directive drives the Church’s members to spread the blessings of Christianity, along both spiritual and material lines.

    Some find fault with the early missionaries who coexisted with hardened and profit-seeking military, together with consistent numbers of civilians, all seeking a better life in the New World. The views and behaviors of the military, as well as of many civilians, were at sharp odds with those who chose to bear the cross of Christianity, disregarding their own comfort and safety in order to convert the natives of the Americas to a better way of life, so very well expressed in the Cather book. Because of opposing views on how to regard and treat the natives of the Americas, the missionaries became the protective wall assisting the transitioning natives from the mindset of those who, although Christian, were led by distorted motivations and deliberate violations of laws and regulations in a strange New World. There, where good intentions clashed with practical indifference, the slow but steady growth of a new culture spread across the Americas. The forces of an earlier era retain their complement in the Americas today.

    It remains for enlightened and motivated people to right any wrongs of the past.

  • Marc

    “Jesuits”? What “Jesuits”. Frs. Latour and Vaillant are diocesan priests prepared by the Missions Etrangeres de Paris, or the Mission Society of Paris which is not affiliated with any religious order.
    I enjoyed Dr. Kalpakgian’s essay, but he errs in bringing in Jesuit Order.

  • Michelle Berghout

    So enjoyed this article; reminded me of one of our favourite books we studied in the Seton curriculum. I remember being inspired by the characters Bishop Latour and Fr Vaillant and their humble and faithful dedication to the mission the Lord called them to. The book is a wonderful narrative based on the real life French missionary priests Archbishop Lamy(first bishop of New Mexico) and Father Machebeuf (first bishop of Denver). Willa Cather spent 15 yrs researching, visiting the southwest and learning from the Belgian priest Fr Haltermann about the 19th century French Jesuit missionaries.