From Goodreads: In 1851, Bishop Latour and his friend Father Valliant are dispatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, Latour spreads his faith the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Over nearly 40 years, they leave converts and enemies, crosses, and occasionally ecstasy in their wake. But it takes a death for them to make their mark on the landscape forever.
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I forgot how much I enjoy Willa Cather’s writing. I read her Prairie trilogy back in college, and though I don’t remember many details, I do remember how much I liked her stories. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Death Comes for the Archbishop—two Catholic priests in the new territory of New Mexico—but I am happy to say that I still thoroughly enjoy her writing and wish a little bit that I had been there to see the beauty of the landscape myself.
When people complained to Cather that they had a hard time classifying this book, she responded “why bother?” And so I will call it a collection of stories about the life of two French missionaries who set out from the Great Lakes region to the newly established diocese of Santa Fe. When they start their journey, no one can even tell them how to get to Santa Fe exactly. Yet the two men are not discouraged and throughout the book they work slowly but steadfastly towards their goal of (re-)establishing the Catholic faith among their parishioners.
While the aspect of religion might turn off some readers who fear it might be “preachy,” I don’t think it should. Certainly, the book talks about how strongly both Bishop Latour (the Archbishop) and Father Vaillant belief in their faith, how they like to share it, and how they thoroughly enjoy their mission. Yet they both respect people with different beliefs, and it is clear that they both love the people and the land that surround them. So I didn’t find the book overly religious. Instead, I felt it was very spiritual, and I found it to have a very calm effect on me. I enjoyed taking my time with it and savoring each picture that was painted. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in this book!
In the end, death does come for the Archbishop, just as the title suggests, but it is a quiet event. While the Archbishop has some regrets, he dies with a sense of peace and accomplishment. It was a very fitting end for this book. I finished it with the renewed resolve to read Cather’s books that are still unknown to me and at some point re-read the ones I already know.