This was our classic read for my local book club. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of classics in general. DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather surprised me on a number of levels, and the fact that I enjoyed it so much, was one.
Cather’s epic follows Father Jean Marie Latour in 1851 as he journeys to a rather tortured section of the church as its newly appointed Apostolic Vicar. What follows is a series of stories from Latour’s life and how the diocese changes and develops in this still freshly colonized area of North America. Filled with beautiful imagery of the Southwest and rife with Church politics and the dramas of everyday families, it is not a wonder that Cather’s work has endured this long.
Knowing that Cather was a Protestant, her motivations to write a story following the life of a single priest is curious, but whatever her motivations were, they seemed to have remained objective. Her perspective on the church is human, authentic, and genuinely reverent in places. There is a mix of both good and bad priests, ones that minister or exploit the indigenous populations. Even Fr. Latour is portrayed as a human, rather than being too deified, which can be found in so many other accounts of truly holy people, fictional or otherwise.
Cather seems to wrestle with how the Church can do its job so far from its earthly source of authority, the Vatican. Meanwhile, the native priests have made due, while some have become an authority unto themselves. Fr. Latour surveys this and also sees the grim underbelly of the Church here, along with the dark side of missionaries, who take advantage of the people they were called to serve.
Reading this as a Catholic is an experience, though not exactly an unpleasant one. The Church is made up very flawed me, so for me, this is unsurprising. What is actually surprising is the charity that Cather musters in order to keep Fr. Latour and his friend Fr. Vaillant are beautiful witnesses to the faith. I was not expecting that at all and it was a beautiful piece of this life spanning novel. The flavor of this text makes me wonder if Flannery O’Connor read this at some point.
Either way, this was a lovely little book and a recommended read to any who enjoy older literature.