Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of Father Jean-Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant, two French missionary priests sent to New Mexico in 1851. (Latour is based on Jean-Marie Lamy, the real-life first Archbishop of Santa Fe.) Latour has recently been named Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe. When he arrives his diocese includes all of New Mexico and during his tenure is expanded to include much of Colorado. It’s a rugged, thinly populated country with few roads. Because of the often impassable terrain – which Cather describes so beautifully that the landscape is like another character – many of the people have never seen a priest before. Babies are born but not baptized and couples live together but do not marry, not because they reject religion but because they have no alternatives.
Travel within the region may be difficult, but travel to the region is no picnic either. When Latour is elevated to Bishop, the railroad ends at Cincinnati, Ohio. To reach New Mexico, he must take a riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, then travel through Texas to New Mexico. As the reader might expect, since traveling to New Mexico is so arduous, communication between New Mexico and Rome is irregular. As a result, many of the local priests have been, shall we say, less than observant of their vows. Latour, a man “to whom order is necessary – as dear as life” is sent to clean up the mess, and he takes Vaillant, his friend from seminary, along as his vicar.
Over the next thirty-seven years, Latour and Vaillant create order from the chaos. Slowly, they befriend the natives, weed out the delinquent priests, and with the help of the Sisters of Loreto, establish a school in Santa Fe. Along the way, they save a woman from a murderous husband, protect a widow from her husband’s greedy family, and take the Gospel to people who otherwise would never hear it. When death does come for Latour (now an Archbishop), the Church in New Mexico is strong, the cathedral he dreamed of is built, and dozens of new priests have been trained to work in New Mexico.
Some would argue that this book has little or no plot; but it’s the story of one person’s life, and if you look at most individuals’ lives, you could say the same thing. The real story of this book is that one person’s kindness and faith in God can transform a community. And that’s a story worth reading.