Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1990, 1927)

I read this book years ago and remembered loving it, but this time, I had to think quite a bit about what I loved.  Ultimately it came down to appreciating the book for what it is, and not what it is not.  It is not a story with a strong narrative.  It’s certainly not a page turner.  If you read for exciting plot lines, then this is not the book for you.  What it is, is a study in character.  It’s the story of Father Jean Latour, a French priest who is assigned to the territory of New Mexico in the mid 1800’s.  His job as a missionary is to grow the Catholic church in this new territory which is largely native Indians (warring with each other) and  Mexicans, some of whom are devoted Catholics and some of whom follow  tribal customs and traditional beliefs.  The story kind of meanders through his life, each chapter made up of little vignettes, stories of his adventures and travels and the people he meets.  Each story is its own, but they all sort of connect around his role and his commitment to the church.  Some stories offer a bit of action, but many others are more of a character study or a character sketch where not much happens, yet we gain new insight into who he is and what makes him tick.  Ultimately we cannot help but love him for his devotion to his work, for his patient and quiet demeanor, for his respect of the local customs, and for his integrity and honor.  He faces many challenges, both physical and mental, but he never gives up.  In his elderly years and at his death, we see this respect come back to him as he is visited by and prayed for by so many folks whom he ministered to over the years.  As he lies in his bed near death, he thinks over his life–the church he built, the persecution of the Navajo Indians, the end of black slavery, his friendship with Father Vaillant, his childhood years in France–and seems genuinely fulfilled.  If only we could all be so easily content and reflective.  (fiction)

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