Death Comes for the Archbishop

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Death Comes for the Archbishop
DeathComes ForTheArchbishop.jpg
First edition dust jacket
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a 1927 novel by American author Willa Cather. It concerns the attempts of a Catholic bishop and a priest to establish a diocese in New Mexico Territory.

The novel was included in Life Magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924-1944.[1] It was also included on Time's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005[2] and Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century[3] and was chosen by the Western Writers of America to be the 7th-best "Western Novel" of the 20th century.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

The primary character is a bishop, Jean Marie Latour, who travels with his friend and vicar Joseph Vaillant from Sandusky, Ohio to New Mexico to take charge of the newly established diocese of New Mexico, which has only just become a territory of the United States. The names given to the main proponents reflect their characters. Vaillant, valiant, is fearless in his promulgation of the faith, whereas Latour, the tower, is more intellectual and reserved than his comrade.

At the time of his departure, Cincinnati is the end of the railway line west, so Latour must travel by riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, and thence overland to New Mexico, a journey which takes an entire year. He spends the rest of his life establishing the Roman Catholic church in New Mexico, where he dies in old age.

The novel portrays two well-meaning and devout French priests who encounter a well-entrenched Spanish-Mexican clergy that they are sent to supplant after the United States has acquired New Mexico in the Mexican–American War. As a result of the U.S. victory, the dioceses of the new state have been remapped by the Vatican to reflect the new national borders.[5]

Several of these entrenched priests are depicted as examples of greed, avarice, and gluttony, while others live simple, abstemious lives among the Native Americans. Cather portrays the Hopi and Navajo sympathetically, and her characters express the near futility of overlaying their religion on a millennia-old native culture.

Historical background[edit]

The novel is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), and partially chronicles the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The capture of the Southwest by the United States in the Mexican–American War is the catalyst for the plot.

"The Padre of Isleta",[6] Anton Docher is identified as the character of Padre de Baca.[7]


  1. ^ Canby, Henry Seidel. "The 100 Outstanding Books of 1924 - 1944". Life Magazine, 14 August 1944. Chosen in collaboration with the magazine's editors.
  2. ^ "Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". 16 October 2005. 
  3. ^ Modern Library 100 Best Novels
  4. ^ "Best Westerns of the 20th Century". 
  5. ^ "The Ideology of Cather's Catholic Progressivism: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Guy Reynolds, from Cather Studies, vol. 3 (1996)". 
  6. ^ Keleher and Chant. The Padre of Isleta. Sunstone Press, 1940–2009,
  7. ^ Willa Cather. Death comes for the Archbishop. Alfred Knopf, 1927, p.425.note 88–89