Death Comes for the Archbishop By Willa Cather Summary and Analysis Book 9: Chapters 1-8

Summary

Archbishop Latour retires to a small estate four miles north of Santa Fe, which he has purchased to live in during the last years of his life. The estate features an apricot tree that is more than two-hundred years old and that still bears delicious fruit. He cultivates an orchard and a garden. He instructs new priests in the Spanish language as well as in the character and traditions of the people of the diocese. Latour counsels the new priests to plant fruit trees in their parishes in order to balance the Mexican diet. He quotes the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal: "man was lost and saved in a garden." He cultivates wildflowers, including verbena, which covers the hillside in many shades of purple, the Episcopal color.

In January 1889, the Archbishop is caught in a rainstorm, subsequently takes ill, and requests permission to return to Santa Fe to die. Bernard, a young priest who shares Latour's temperament and has become like a son to the Archbishop, tells Latour that he won't die of a cold. Latour responds that he will not die from a cold but from having lived. From then on, Latour speaks only French, which alarms the household. He schedules his return to Santa Fe to coincide with the sunset, which is the same time of day he first entered the town.

Latour returns to Santa Fe in February. He stops to admire the cathedral. He is pleased that the French architect with whom he worked was able to make the church fit into the landscape. Latour's family expected him to return to France for his final years, but he prefers to stay in New Mexico because it is there where "he always awoke a young man." He loves the air on the "bright edges of the world."

Latour dictates to Bernard the history of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. He remembers how the first Spanish priests had entered a hostile country, but when he himself had come, the people were friendly. He tries to impress on the young priests that the early missionaries suffered a great deal.

Latour remembers the story of Father Junipero, a monk lost in the desert, who finds a poor Mexican family and is sheltered by them. It becomes obvious to the reader that the family is a representation of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. When Junipero tells the brothers at the monastery about the family, he is told there is no house within twelve leagues of the area where Junipero traveled. (Leagues are an old land measure in parts of the United States that were formerly Mexican; 1 league is equal to about 4,400 acres.)

Latour contemplates the choices made by his friend Vaillant. He considers how Vaillant was torn between loyalty to his family and his faith. Without Latour's support, Vaillant would have lost his resolve to travel to the New World. For his part, Vaillant has overextended his parish financially, prompting official reprimands from the Vatican.

Latour outlives Vaillant (the reader is told that this is a literary device, and that the opposite is actually accurate). He recalls the devotion Vaillant inspired in others. One priest, Father Revardy, was so devoted to Vaillant that he rushed back from Chicago for Vaillant's funeral even though he himself had been stricken with a fatal disease. Revardy arrives halfway through Vaillant's funeral and dies several days later.

Eusabio visits the priest and realizes that Latour is dying. The Archbishop tells Bernard that he has seen two wrongs made right: the end of slavery and the return of the Navajos to their own country.

During the Bishop's middle years in New Mexico, he had witnessed the persecution of the Navajos. Latour admired the tribe, and was troubled deeply by the ill treatment they received. Kit Carson had conquered the last of them by destroying their cornfields and peach orchards. Eusabio asks Latour to meet with the Navajo leader, Manuelito. Manuelito asks the Bishop to plead the Navajo's case to the politicians in Washington, D.C. Latour tells Manuelito that a Roman Catholic priest has little authority with a Protestant government. Manuelito does not believe Latour and goes into hiding from Kit Carson. The government reverses its policy toward the Navajos five years later, and they return to their sacred lands. In 1875, Latour and his architect visit the Navajos.

In his final days, Latour refuses food. His diocese prays for him. He receives the last rites. His final thoughts are of him reassuring Vaillant to give him the courage to go to the New World missions. He dies that night.

Analysis

In this last section of the book, the reader is given a perspective of the Archbishop's life. The fruits of the Bishop's labor are symbolized by the apricots, the garden, and the wildflowers. He has reclaimed a diocese, built a cathedral, taught new priests, and found a surrogate son in Bernard. He has quietly nurtured and cultivated the Catholic faith in his diocese. He has seen the buffalo replaced by the railroad, the emancipation of slaves, and the Navajos restored to their land. He has seen ignorance and suspicion in the Mexicans give way to real faith. From an unreclaimed country, New Mexico has become a fountain of the Catholic faith.

It is important to Latour that the cathedral fits into the landscape, hearkening back to his admiration for Eusabio's ability to minimize his presence on the landscape. His last thoughts are of the decision to come to the New World, completing the story of his life.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After he takes to his death bed, Latour




Quiz