This Lent, Do Yourself a Favor: Read ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’

This remarkable book has earned a well-deserved spot in the canon of great American novels.

A statue of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy stands before the cathedral in Santa Fe
A statue of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy stands before the cathedral in Santa Fe (photo: Wollertz / Shutterstock)

There is a wonderful sequence near the end of Willa Cather’s 1927 masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, that tells a few anecdotes related to St. Junípero Serra. Cather’s novel takes place in the vast remoteness of the American Southwest in the mid-19th century, and is based on the life and episcopacy of the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888). Father Latour is Lamy’s surrogate in the novel, and on our main character’s way to Old Mexico to see the Bishop of Durango, priests from Sonora and Lower California relate stories from the days of the Franciscan missionaries 100 years earlier.

St. Junípero and two companions were attempting to ford a river but were facing great peril. Here, surrounded by only a foreboding landscape, they are startled when a stranger appears on the other side of the river, instructing them — in Spanish — to cross farther downstream. They follow the man’s instructions, but he has vanished. On another occasion, starving while crossing a great plain, St. Junípero and his Franciscans were surprised by a galloping horseman who tossed the friars three pomegranates and continued riding ahead.

In yet another story, a superior at a desert monastery cannot believe his eyes when St. Junípero and one companion arrive at the monastery door on foot. How could they have crossed such a great desert with no guide or no food? Father Serra replied they were aided by a poor Mexican family on the way. This the Brothers of the monastery found unbelievable, as there was no house from where the Franciscans had come. Be that as it may, St. Junípero said, and told them about encountering a house near three large cottonwood trees where they met a shepherd, his wife stirring porridge, and their toddler infant playing with a pet lamb. The family shared their supper with the priests before the weary travelers fell asleep. They awoke to find fresh food on the table, but the family — and pet lamb — were gone.

The Brothers were astonished. Yes, there were three great cottonwoods, but certainly not a house. And certainly not a family with a little boy! So, some of the Brothers went with Father Junípero and the other Franciscans back to the cottonwood trees. And sure enough, there was absolutely no sign of any human activity. There, amid this lonely landscape, St. Junípero revealed a powerful moment:

After prayers, when he bade his hosts good-night, he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing; and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Father Junípero’s forehead.

Father Latour was captivated by these stories when he first heard them, particularly the last story, dubbed Father Junípero’s Holy Family. He was so moved by the accounts of finding simple grace in the desert he only related them twice throughout the rest of his life.

There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity — the queen making hay among the country girls — but how much more endearing was the belief that They, after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play Their first parts in the person of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor — in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find Them!

These are just a few examples of the remarkable vignettes that punctuate Cather’s picaresque tale of missionary zeal, perseverance, and challenges in an untamed land increasingly feeling the creeping modern age destined to forever change that mystical landscape.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was not a Catholic, but rather raised Episcopalian. Death Comes for the Archbishop was her ninth novel. During the 15 years Cather spent in the American Southwest before working on the novel, she found the Catholic Church’s presence in that region “the most interesting of all its stories.” And for a non-Catholic to grasp and beautifully articulate the depths and complexities of missionary life — particularly during such a monumental time as the confluence of Navajo, American and Spanish cultures — shows just how great Cather’s writing talent was, and how well-deserved Death Comes for the Archbishop is considered in the canon of great American novels.

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