Willa Cather is the author of the award winning novel Death Comes For The Archbishop written in 1927. She was born in 1873 near Winchester, Virginia and soon moved to Nebraska (Cather, 1927). During her childhood she was surrounded by foreign languages and customs. Even at her young age she felt a connection to the immigrants in Nebraska and was intrigued with their connection to the land. Willa also loved writing about the vanished past of the American Southwest where nature and Christianity is opposed to the modern urban life and society.
She was raised Episcopalian and later in life she joined the Protestant Church in search for spirituality while still being captivated with the grandeur of ceremonies performed in the Catholic Church. These fascinations were projected directly into to her writings, as seen in her book Death Comes For The Archbishop. This book was awarded the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930.
This book is considered an American Classic due to its longevity in popular literature. It also provides the important historical background on the Catholic Church and its impact on the American Southwest. Willa emphasizes, through her writings, the hardships of the people involved in making this part of America what it is today. It points out the influence of the earliest Spanish missionaries of the 16th century through the latter part of the 19th century involving French missionaries and exposes the corruptness as well as the dedication of the missionaries of the church.
The book’s main setting is in the 19th century, during the settlement of New Mexico and Colorado and recalls the journeys that a priest undertook and the hardships overcame in order to meet his and the churches goal of bringing the Catholic faith to Mexicans and native Indians. Through his travels and the spiritual work in the beautiful, yet rough environment he was radically transformed. He was especially influenced by the experiences of the westward movement of the agricultural frontier because of the impact of the native people.
The main character of this book is Father Jean Marie Latour. He was consecrated the Catholic Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in partibus at Cincinnati and was destined to reach his Vicarate (Cather 1927) and help the people of the land. When he was given his mission to retrieve the bishopric (Cather 1927) by the Vatican in Rome he accepted it whole heartedly. Father Latour developed a great love for the people and the land of New Mexico through his travels. He loved the Mexican and Indian customs and shared his faith with them; he devoted his whole life to the people and church.
At this point in history New Mexico was only explored by merchants, priests and natives. The land of the Southwest was filled with many different tribes, such as the Acoma, Zuni, Navajos and Apaches. This land was very dangerous to travel because of the rugged terrain and the Comanche Indian raids (along the Santa Fe Trail). These were a threat to all travelers, even other Indian tribes.
Through Father Latour’s journeys he came in contact with many people both good and bad. During this period in history many natives did not want anything to do with foreigners, after all the “white” race took their land away from them and robbed them of their traditions and they way of life they had always lived.
One of the first stops was at a settlement under the authority of a corrupt Bishop who had refused to recognize Father Latour’s authority. While continuing the journey he came to find many “hidden communities” along his path. Often times in these communities the Catholic Church is not always welcomed with open arms. However, there is one community that the villagers were especially joyful to see the priest. The village is known as Hidden Water and the members thought that the priest was sent to them by the Virgin Mary to baptize their children and sanctify the marriages. These community member “elders” were already Catholic, but were being pressured by the Protestant religion to convert their religion.
Throughout the novel there is a representation of miracles of the faith in a land so far away and far removed from the European culture of the Vatican. The Vatican gave Father Latour his mission to revive this portion of the world. The American Southwest, at that time, was full of prejudice, hardships and cruelty. Perhaps the most prevalent miracle is when Father Latour met Sada, an old Mexican woman who was held against her will by a Protestant family. He met her when his faith was wavering and he needed guidance. When he listened to her life story about the brutality she had endured because of her religion and race, he was reborn. Meeting Sada was a pivotal point in his mission, the story of her hardships pushed him to resume his mission.
Also through his journey he experiences a corrupt priest by the name of Father Martinez. While Father Latour is spending time with Father Martinez he realizes what an impact a truly evil person can have on the community. Father Matinez argues that celibacy may be the way of the French clergy, but it is not a way of the Spanish clergy (Cather, 1927). Additionally, Father Latour finds it disturbing is that Father Martinez despises his fellow clergy in Rome and had no interest in their authority; the Mexican priests live as they please, above everyone else’s means. Priests of the Catholic religion live in the manner of their followers; they do not posses anything of monetary value what so ever. This was not the case with Father Martinez.
This book shows how powerful a person of religious faith, when practiced properly and in good intentions, can transform lives, civilize culture and serve as a merging agent between the religion and people. I believe that the mission Pope John Paul II is a mirror of the life of Father Latuor. Pope John Paul II is a man of the world and the church, his goal in life was to spread the Catholic faith and unite the people of the world. The Pope traveled extensively and touched many people’s lives, regardless of their religious affiliation. Pope John Paul’s greatest work was changing religion and political situations in Eastern Europe; just as Father Latour worked to change the religion and life in Southwestern America.