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Death Comes for the Archbishop

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather describes the adventure of two priests who seek to establish their own diocese and supplant the existing Spanish diocese in New Mexico territory after the war that caused the territory to change nationalities. The novel depicts the conflicts between both the old and the new priests, and between Catholic priests in general and the ancient Native American culture that had deep roots in the region.

Taking a dangerous journey

Death Comes for the Archbishop is an American frontier-period novel published in 1927 by Virginian author Willa Cather (1872-1947). The novel deals with the mid-19th-century efforts of a bishop and priest from the Midwest, who travel westward to spread the Catholic church to the recently acquired New Mexico Territory.

The journey begins in 1850 Sandusky, Ohio, where fearless bishop Jean Marie Latour departs for the southwest in the company of stoic vicar Joseph Vaillant. The two set off to establish a diocese in a largely unsettled area, recently added to the United States after the American-Mexican War.

It's a perilous route to tread, as the railway from their point of departure only goes as far as Cincinnati; thus the two must finish their journey via riverboat through the Gulf of Mexico and then overland: a trek that takes them a year to complete. Once they arrive, the mission is on to supplant the Spanish-Mexican clergy and the simpler faiths of native cultures. The protagonist spends the rest of his life setting up the Roman Catholic church in the new territory, which becomes his resting ground.

Exploring early Catholicism in the Southwest

Death Comes for the Archbishop explores the early Catholic expansion into the American southwest, which began with Spanish settlements in the 16th century and continued through to the arrival of Anglo missionaries during the late 1800s. Catholicism in the area witnessed a shift throughout this period, with the devout piety of early missionaries contrasted in later years by the more worldly likes of Friar Baltazar Montoya, Antonio Jose Martinez, and other priests.

The novel's Catholic theme is enriched by the occurrence of miracles during scenes that take place in the southwest. A cruciform tree, for instance, is deemed to be a miracle in the eyes of Latour. Though the author herself was Protestant, Death Comes for the Archbishop has been viewed by religious scholars as a testament to the power of Catholicism as a civilizing faith that transforms lives and helps followers reconcile metaphysical realms with the real world. 

Fictionalized version of Jean-Baptiste Lamy's early role

Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on the life of 19th century French Roman Catholic prelate Jean-Baptiste Lamy. The novel partly depicts the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Lamy sat as the first Archbishop. 

During the year that Death Comes for the Archbishop was published, Cather spent time in Quebec, and the French-Canadian influence has been noted by critics both in this story and her subsequent novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931). Despite the acclaim of these works, the author fell out of favor amidst the onslaught of the 1930s Dust Bowl era, when her conservative politics and idealized views of the past were deemed archaic by a growing wave of left-leaning literary critics. Consequently, she withdrew from public life for the remainder of her years, which were spent in New York City with her life partner and estate trustee, Edith Lewis.

Nonetheless, Death Comes for the Archbishop remains one of the most acclaimed literary works of the 20th century. In 2005, Time magazine included the novel on its list of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. 

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