Three Roman Catholic Cardinals@ — a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Spanish-English@ — from the Vatican convene in an Italian estate garden with an Irish-born missionary bishop from America in the mid-1800s. The missionary requests that a bishop be appointed to the United States' newly annexed territory on New Mexico.
Garcia Maria de Allande, the Cardinal of Spanish-English parentage, although still a young man, has retired to his country estate following the death of Pope Gregory XVI to avoid the reforms of his successor. Allande whiles away his time playing tennis against competitors who come from as far as Spain and France. By contrast, the missionary Father Ferrand is weathered and haggard in appearance.
Ferrand explains to the three Cardinals that the recent annexation of the New Mexico territory equals a country larger than Central and Western Europe combined. He predicts that the Bishop overseeing such a large area will "direct the beginning of momentous things." Ferrand provides a background of the Catholic Church's activities in the area since its evangelization by Spanish missionaries in 1500. Since that time, however, the area has been understaffed by Catholic priests and has lapsed into such corruptions as priests taking concubines and ignoring the strictures of the Catholic Mass. Ferrand warns that if reforms are not put in place, the territory will infect the Catholic Church throughout the New World.
Ferrand tells the Cardinals that the area currently is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, in Mexico, which is nearly 1,500 miles away. He informs the Cardinals that the distance is so great and the terrain so rugged that the Bishop cannot discipline rebellious priests. Ferrand responds to the Bishop of Durango's recommendation of a local vicar for the post of Archbishop of New Mexico that this native priest is too old. He recommends Jean Marie Latour, a French priest who has worked in both Canada and Ohio, telling the Cardinals that whoever is appointed must possess great intelligence and a love for organization.
Cardinal Allande tells the story of how his great-grandfather donated a priceless El Greco painting to a Franciscan missionary. He uses this story as pretence for recommending Latour to the Vicarate of New Mexico@ — in order for Latour to retrieve the painting for him. Allande bids Ferrand farewell by assuring him that he'll recommend Latour to the post.
The nationalities of the three Cardinals will be mirrored in the ethnic makeup of the New Mexico territory. Latour is French, the indigenous population is Spanish-speaking, and the Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome, is Italian. Father Ferrand, the Irish-born Bishop of French ancestry, further underscores the diversity represented in the New World.
Cather describes the garden setting in great detail. It is carved into the mountains overlooking Rome. The setting is refined and cultivated, underscored by the cardinal's tastes for fine wine, gourmet food, and art. As the Catholic Church has become the predominant civilizing element of Europe, so too will it serve to civilize the American Southwest.
The host cardinal admits that his knowledge of the North American continent derives primarily from the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper. But he is eager to champion Ferrand's nomination to the Vicarate if it means he can retrieve an El Greco painting of St. Francis of Assisi his great-grandfather had donated from his collection to a Franciscan missionary priest in the New World.
The cardinals find Bishop Ferrand's single-mindedness annoying, and change the subject to current political and cultural events. Bishop Ferrand is unable to take part in the conversation and worries that he has been on the frontier so long that he can no longer engage in clever discussion. Sensing that Ferrand might have second-thoughts about appointing Latour to such a remote, uncivilized, and desolate post, Allande tells Ferrand that it is too late.
Father Latour is described as a thirty-five-year-old French Jesuit missionary. The French Jesuits are believed by the cardinals to be great organizers. Ferrand predicts that the New Mexico territory will "drink up [Latour's] youth and strength as it does the rain." Latour also will be called upon to make great personal sacrifices, perhaps even becoming a martyr.
Cather foreshadows the color themes she dedicates to the southwestern landscape by describing the dome of St. Peter's as bluish-gray with "a flash of copper light." Later, as the sun sets, Cather describes the sky as "waves of rose and gold." She will eventually use various shades of copper and gold to describe the terrain of New Mexico. In addition, her description of the "soft metallic surface" of St. Peter's contrasts with the hardness of the American frontier depicted by the bishop. Cather also describes the light as both intense and soft, revealing the relative easiness of European life in comparison to the lives of American missionaries.
anomalous deviating from the general rule or usual method; abnormal.
concubinage a state of cohabitation with a woman without benefit of marriage.