Willa Cather’s Archbishop

Santa Fe, New Mexico… Tradition has it that the full name given to this city by the Spaniards was La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). This high-plains city of brilliant sun, thin air, and blue skies in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has had its share of legendary explorers, missionaries, pioneers, military leaders, entrepreneurs, writers, and artists connected to its history and folklore: people like Cabeza de Vaca; Francisco Coronado; Juan de Mate; Pedro de Peralta; the Franciscan friars; the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache Indians; Lt. Zebulon M. Pike; Col. Stephen W. Kearney; Kit Carson; Joseph Pulitzer; and Georgia O’Keefe.

Two others who belong on this list of colorful and forceful figures of Santa Fe are a French-born archbishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy, and a Czech-American writer, Willa Cather. Lamy was the missionary who established and consolidated the Archdiocese of Santa Fe during the latter part of the 19th century, and Cather, inspired by his endeavors, published a novel in 1927 called Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Cather’s Invisible Friend

What moved Cather to write about Lamy? Before becoming an archbishop, he had been a missionary priest during the 1840s around Cincinnati, Ohio. After the Mexican-American War, he was named vicar apostolic of Santa Fe and arrived there in 1851. Cather, a writer born in Virginia and raised in Nebraska, was drawn to the Indian and Hispanic heritage of the Southwest and began to visit and study the area in the early 20th century. During her travels, she met a knowledgeable Belgian priest who was serving in Santa Cruz, New Mexico. He told Cather a great deal about the history of New Mexico, including that of the Indians and their traditions. Gather also read a biography titled The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf by William Joseph Howlett, S.J. Machebeuf had been Lamy’s friend and classmate from their seminary years in France and accompanied Lamy to New Mexico. The biography included excerpts from Machebeuf’s letters to his family in France and revealed much, not only about Machebeuf but also about Lamy.

After her travels and research, Lather concluded that “the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories.” She commented further that Lamy “had become a sort of invisible personal friend” long before she thought about writing her narrative. It was also during these years that due to a deepening interest in Christianity, Lather became an Episcopalian in 1922.

Escape to America

Who was this archbishop who would become the memorable fictional figure Archbishop Jean Marie Latour in Lather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop?

He was born on October 11, 1814, in the small village of Lempdes, Auvergne, not far from Clermont-Ferrand in south-central France. His parents were well-to-do peasants. Of their seven children, only four survived to adulthood. Jean’s early studies were completed at a Jesuit school in the nearby village of Billom. He then went to the preparatory seminary at Clermont and finished at the major seminary in Mont Ferrand.

It was there that he met Joseph Priest Machebeuf, a fellow seminarian two years his elder. They became fast friends, and the friendship was destined to last for a lifetime. Lamy was tall and angular and had a wide brow and dark hair; because of his gentle and serious nature, he was nicknamed “the Lamb.” In contrast, Machebeuf was small and a bit homely and had extremely fair hair. His lack of dashing good looks was offset by a lively, impulsive, and somewhat mischievous disposition. His nickname was “Whitey.” After both were ordained, they served briefly in small nearby parishes in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

In 1838, the rector of the seminary at Mont Ferrand received a letter from Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati telling him of a great need for missionaries to volunteer to come to America. The seminary rector contacted Lamy and Machebeuf to see if they were interested, and they decided to sign on. They faced difficult obstacles, however. Both of their families were opposed to their leaving, especially Machebeuf’s. Machebeuf knew that his father would probably do everything possible to prevent him from becoming a missionary.

So the small and wiry young priest decided to say nothing, and he and Lamy hatched a plan. They met early on May 21, 1839, on the outskirts of the town of Riom. There the two, disguised as laymen, clambered aboard a stagecoach headed for Paris. The stagecoach route went right by the Machebeuf family home, so Joseph had to crouch to the floor so that no one would see him. When Machebeuf’s father found out that his son had left without saying goodbye, he was devastated.

The two young priests made their way to Paris, and once there, they met with Purcell and hastened to explain what they had done. The bishop decided to address a letter to the elder Machebeuf asking him to forgive his son. He also reminded the father that his son’s flight was similar to that of St. Francis Xavier, who three centuries earlier had headed to faraway mission lands without saying goodbye to his parents. It took time for Machebeuf’s father to accept the idea, but eventually he did.

Lamy and Machebeuf then left Paris and headed to Le Havre, where they set sail for America with Purcell and others on July 9, 1839. After landing in New York, the group finally reached Cincinnati via steam packet on September 10. Because the need for clergy was so great, Purcell wasted no time. He assigned Lamy and Machebeuf to mission parishes in Ohio almost immediately, even though both were inexperienced and spoke very little English. They spent the next several months settling into these parishes and perfecting the language. Lamy was able to preach his first sermon in English on Palm Sunday in 1840. In all, the two young priests spent the next eleven years in the area, consolidating parishes and building churches, chapels, and rectories. During his last year and a half in the Midwest, Lamy was transferred to a parish in Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

How Lamy Won the West

Expansion into the West had begun, and border disputes flared in the southwestern United States, culminating in the Mexican-American War, which lasted from April 1846 to February 1848. In the agreements that followed the war (including the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848), Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah all became a part of the United States. Rome decided to establish a vicariate apostolic (a diocese in the process of being founded) in New Mexico and named Lamy as its vicar apostolic, or titular bishop, on July 23, 1850. Lamy proposed taking his friend and classmate Machebeuf with him as vicar general. Machebeuf accepted. In November, Lamy left for Santa Fe, and Machebeuf followed later.

Lamy chose a curious route, taking a steamboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He sailed from New Orleans on the SS Palmetto, a ship that, unbeknownst to him, had been declared unseaworthy. In the midst of a violent January storm in the Gulf of Mexico, the Palmetto struck a sandbar and sank off the coast near Galveston, Texas. Incredibly, Lamy and the other 100-some passengers, in freezing rain and high waves, made it ashore in lifeboats. He recalled that everyone was “white with frost and ice?’ Most of their belongings were lost; Lamy, however, was able to salvage one trunk that held his vestments and some books.

Lamy’s party then made its way through Texas by wagon train to San Antonio. There they stopped to prepare for the last leg of their trip. During visits to parishes in the area, Lamy was badly injured while attempting to handle one or several runaway mules. He suffered an extremely serious sprain and was bedridden, unable to walk for several weeks. Machebeuf caught up with him in San Antonio while he was recuperating. Together they recommenced the trip from San Antonio several weeks later and finally arrived via wagon train in Santa Fe on August 15, 1851, more than eight months after they began the journey in the Midwest.

In the first chapter of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather introduces her two main protagonists, Latour (Lamy) and Father Joseph Vaillant (Machebeuf):

As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fe, at last! A thin, wavering adobe town…a green plaza…at one end a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness…. The church and all the low adobe houses were rose color in that light—a little darker in tone than the amphitheater of red hills behind….

The young Bishop was not alone in the exaltation of that hour; beside him rode Father Joseph Vaillant, his boyhood friend, who had made this long pilgrimage with him and shared his danger. The two rode into Santa Fe together, claiming it for the glory of God!

There was resistance to Lamy by some, including several of the native Mexican priests. There were essentially three reasons for the opposition. First, the faithful of Santa Fe had not received official notification of the appointment of the new titular bishop and his vicar general and still felt allegiance to Bishop Jose Antonio Laureano de Zubiria from the Diocese of Durango in Mexico. Second, there was some remaining patriotic sentiment toward Mexico; after all, the Mexican- American War had just ended three years earlier, and the Hispanic population in and around Santa Fe was tied both culturally and linguistically to Mexico. In fact, Lamy and Machebeuf had to learn Spanish in order to communicate with their Spanish-speaking flock. Third, some of the Mexican priests left in the territory were leading less than virtuous lives and probably foresaw that Lamy would discipline them, which he did. He eventually had to suspend three from exercising their duties as parish priests; two of those were subsequently excommunicated.

Given this tenuous state of affairs, Lamy felt compelled to make a 3,000-mile round-trip trek to Durango to meet with Bishop Zubiria and clarify matters. He returned a few weeks later with most of the issues resolved except for the exact geographical demarcation between the dioceses of Santa Fe and Durango. In her novel’s prologue, Lather refers to the bishop of Durango and offers a powerful description of the landscape between Santa Fe and Durango over which her fictional Bishop Latour traveled. In a conversation set in Rome in her novel, three cardinals and a missionary are talking about the need to create a new diocese in New Mexico, a territory recently annexed to the United States. The missionary says:

“Your Eminence, the Bishop of Durango is an old man; and from his seat to Santa Fe is a distance of fifteen hundred English miles. There are no wagon roads, no canals, no navigable rivers. Trade is carried on by means of pack-mules, over treacherous trails…. The very floor of the world is cracked open into countless canyons and arroyos, fissures in the earth which are sometimes ten feet deep, sometimes a thousand. Up and down these stony chasms the traveler and his mules clamber as best they can. It is impossible to go far in any direction without crossing them. If the Bishop of Durango should summon a disobedient priest by letter, who shall bring the Padre to him? Who can prove that he ever received the summons? The post is carried by hunters, fur trappers, gold seekers, whoever happens to be moving on the trails.”

Literary Liberties

Because Lather was an extremely convincing storyteller, much debate has revolved throughout the years around her juxtaposition of historical events alongside fictional ones in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Lather perhaps best summed up what she was trying to do in a letter she wrote on September 27, 1927, to Commonweal magazine. In this letter, she attempted to answer the hundreds of queries she had received concerning this matter: “In the main, I followed the life story of the two Bishops [Machebeuf became the bishop of Denver, Colorado] very much as it was, though I used many of my own experiences and some of my father’s. In actual fact, of course, Bishop Lamy died first of the two friends, and it was Bishop Machebeuf who went to his funeral. Often I have heard from old people how he broke down when he rose to speak and was unable to go on.”

To those wondering whether the book should be truly considered a novel, she had the following to say: “I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement, ‘This book is hard to classify.’ Then why bother? Many more assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative.” With this statement, Lather was resisting the attempts of readers, literary critics, and others to pigeonhole her, and she was defending her use of a mixed-genre approach.

What Lather achieved in her book was a literary figure who is both thought-provoking and memorable. Creative writers quite often infuse their thoughts, feelings, and philosophical views into the characters they create. Lather was no exception. Likewise, it is essential to remember that her book was not an annotated historical biography. For that, we can go to other books, sources, and historical records, many of which are still available. Lather merely opened up the marvelous door of storytelling for us.

Examples of events based on historical occurrences in Death Comes for the Archbishop include the serious difficulties that the bishop faced concerning a number of recalcitrant priests; the dangerous and daunting journeys over remote territorial lands that both missionaries undertook; the founding of parishes, schools, and other institution in Santa Fe; the elevation of the Diocese of Santa Fe to an archdiocese; the establishment of the new diocese of Colorado with Machebeuf as its first titular bishop; and the building of the cathedral in Santa Fe.

Cather’s forte was not only her descriptive capabilities but also her ability to create convincing literary characters who come alive on the page and touch us with their thoughts, feelings, and foibles. In several passages, she deals with the friendship between Latour and Valliant, as in the following passage describing their first Christmas celebration in Santa Fe:

As this was Christmas Day, the two friends were speaking in their native tongue. For years they had made it a practice to speak English together, except upon very special occasions, and of late they conversed in Spanish, in which they both needed to gain fluency….

“You ask me not to drag you any farther, Joseph. I wish.” Bishop Latour leaned back in his chair and locked his hands together beneath his chin. “I wish I knew how far this is… Does anyone know the extent of this diocese or of this territory?”

…The Bishop smiled and shook his head. “And when you were at the seminary, you made a resolve to lead a life of contemplation.”

A light leaped into Fr. Joseph’s homely face. “One day you will release me, and I will return to some religious house in France and end my days in devotion to the Holy Mother. For the time being, it is my destiny to serve Her in action. But this is far enough, Jean.”

…The wiry little priest whose life was to be a succession of mountain ranges, pathless deserts, yawning canyons and swollen rivers, who was to carry the Cross into territories yet unknown and unnamed, who would wear down mules and horses and scouts and stage-drivers, tonight looked apprehensively at his superior and repeated, “No more, Jean. This is far enough.”

This passage crystallizes for the reader what that friendship must have been all about. It is not to be read as an exact historical account but rather as a powerful and moving literary recreation inspired by historical documents.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the historical events that Cather describes in Death Comes for the Archbishop was the building of Santa Fe’s cathedral. Lamy chose the Midi- Romanesque style of semicircular arches and barrel vaults from his native France for the new cathedral. The cornerstone was laid on July 14, 1869, and construction actually began around the existing adobe cathedral. The idea was to build a larger cathedral around the older one, which was still in use until it could be dismantled. Two French contractors, Antoine and Projectus Mouly, were hired to build the main structure. Several other masons and contractors, including Michel Machebeuf (Joseph’s nephew), continued the construction when Antoine Mouly became blind and could no longer work and Projectus Mouly went to work on a Gothic chapel for the Sisters of Loretto nearby. It was during the construction of the cathedral, on February 12, 1875, that the Diocese of Santa Fe was elevated to an archdiocese, with Lamy as its first archbishop. Nine years later, construction had advanced enough so that the adobe nave of the old cathedral inside was finally taken down. The new cathedral was ultimately consecrated two years later on March 7, 1886, even though it was not completely finished. The exterior had been built of a golden brown sandstone quarried from a nearby mesa. Cather’s description of the quarry and stone is vivid and lasting:

[O]n the western face, the earth had been scooped away, exposing a rugged wall of rock…a strong golden ochre, very much like the gold of the sunlight that was now beating upon it. Picks and crowbars lay about, and fragments of stone, freshly broken off…. [T]he base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow…but the top was still melted gold—a color that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a deep sigh of deep content. “Yes,” he said slowly, “that rock will do very well.”

Death Comes

Years passed for the archbishop, and he began to suffer frequent bouts of illness. He wrote to Pope Leo XIII in Rome requesting that, because of his failing health, his resignation be accepted and that the Coadjutor Bishop Jean Baptiste Salpointe succeed him as archbishop of Santa Fe. Lamy’s request was granted, and Salpointe assumed full responsibilities on July 18, 1885. Lamy retired to a country retreat called Villa Pintoresca (now a hotel) just outside of Santa Fe. There he had his books, his telescope, and a country garden.

Just after his resignation, he submitted a final statistical report to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in France. Throughout the 35 years Lamy had headed up the see of Santa Fe, this society had been most generous in advancing him money for missionary endeavors. The statistics he submitted in a very matter-of-fact way are impressive: Some 172 churches and chapels had been built, opened, or reopened (only 66 had existed at the time of his arrival); and the number of priests had increased by 42 (there had been only twelve, and the number fell to nine after the suspensions). Numerous parish and Indian schools, eight secondary schools, two colleges, one hospital (staffed by the Sisters of Charity), and one orphanage had also been founded during his time in office.

One of Lamy’s earliest foundations and one that meant a great deal to him was the Our Lady of Light academy for girls run by the Lorettine nuns. His niece, Marie, who had been a student there, was now the mother superior, known as Mother Francesca. In December 1887, just two months before he died, Lamy was able to dedicate the finally completed Loretto Convent Chapel. In early February, the 73¬year-old archbishop fell ill with a serious cold and was driven by carriage the three miles from Villa Pintoresca into Santa Fe to the archbishop’s residence. There the doctors diagnosed him as having severe pneumonia and did not give him much hope of recovery. He began to fade away, and he died peacefully on February 13, 1888. Cather’s description of Latour’s (Lamy’s) death is eloquent and evocative:

On the last day of his life his condition was pretty generally known…. He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little… [b]ut in reality the [arch]bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eye by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new will in that devout and exhausted priest, and the time was short for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge….

When the cathedral bell tolled just after dark, the Mexican population of Santa Fe fell upon their knees, and all American Catholics as well. Many others who did not kneel prayed in their hearts…and the next morning the old Archbishop lay before the high altar in the church he had built.

According to historical accounts, Lamy lay in state for 24 hours in front of the main altar of the cathedral, and it was said that 6,000 people came to pay him their respects. According to a description of his funeral in Lamy of Santa Fe by the Catholic novelist Paul Horgan, “[The archbishop’s body] was robed in red dalmatic and chasuble and on his hands were purple gloves. The pallium lay upon his shoulders and breast. A white mitre emblazoned with the Holy Ghost in gold was on his head. His hands held a crucifix.” After the funeral Mass, concelebrated by three clerics, Machebeuf, Salpointe, and Pierre Eguillon, Lamy was buried in a crypt in the cathedral he had built. And so it was that this missionary priest, named first bishop and then first archbishop of Santa Fe, was laid to rest after many journeys, adventures, struggles, and achievements.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Marina Ochoa, Lisa Lopez, and Amanda Johnson for their materials and assistance. Aside from Willa Cather’s writings, most of the information in this article comes from Lamy of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1975.


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

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