Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)

Melinda Padgett, Fine Bookbinding, Santa Cruz, California

“The more I visited in the Southwest,” she wrote in an essay about the novel, “the more I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of its stories. The old mission churches, even those which were abandoned and in ruins, had a moving reality about them; the hand-carved beams and joists, the utterly unconventional frescoes, the countless fanciful figures of the saints, not two of them alike, seemed a deeper expression of some very real and lively human feeling.”

Willa Cather was an uncharacteristically quiet voice of the roaring twenties.  Unlike many of her contemporaries who delighted in inventions of wordplay, her prose was unadorned and straightforward.  The power of her stories was found in the lives of her characters who were unvarnished and transparent in their exposure to the reader.  Today’s masterpiece is a pristine example of her clean, powerful voice.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Death Comes for the Archbishop, like the landscape described in its pages, has a sparse, elegant simplicity. Its pace is languid; the story will not be rushed but rather unfolds quietly in the deserts of New Mexico as it records the life of Father Jean Marie Latour, who comes to these barren lands—a vast territory of red hills, towering mesas, and forbidding heat—to take his place as a missionary to the Mexicans and Native Americans who dwell there. Over a period of forty years, Latour spreads his faith with an inward passion and an outward gentleness, dealing with the harsh conditions, the spiritual confusions of his vast flock, openly rebellious and immoral priests, and his nagging loneliness and longing for his home in Ohio.

Throughout the novel Cather evokes the strange magnificence and wonder of the Southwest landscape with such precision that the reader can feel the oppressive sun beating down upon the long and dusty roads the archbishop must travel to minister to his widespread flock, yet still revel in the mystery and timelessness of the desolate landscape. Cather, and her archbishop, show great respect for the Native Americans who live on this land and the spiritual relationship they have with it. Though this is not a novel primarily concerned with the ethics of colonialism, the archbishop is aware of the injustices that have been perpetrated upon these people. Near the end of the book he says, “I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their land.

Does evangelism ever suffer from embellishment?  Is it possible to exaggerate the gospel?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Willa Cather

Willa Cather

(1873–1947). In such classic American novels as O Pioneers! Willa Cather wrote of people she had known as a girl in Nebraska. Her friends were native Americans as well as European immigrants and their children. She showed how these pioneers were able to adapt to the rugged prairie life in the western area of America. For her depictions of this valiant spirit, Willa Cather won wide acclaim as a novelist.

Willa Sibert Cather was born on Dec. 7, 1873, on a farm near the town of Winchester, Va. The Cather family had been living in Virginia for four generations. When Cather was 9 years old, her father bought a ranch that was located near Red Cloud, Neb. The child was excited by the change from a settled, eastern community to a semifrontier area where she was free to roam outdoors. Often she would ride her pony to a neighbor’s farm and listen to old immigrant women tell stories of their childhood experiences and adventures in Sweden or Bohemia.
There were no schools near the ranch, so she studied at home. A neighbor taught her Latin, and Cather read English classics aloud to her grandmother. When Cather was in her teens the family moved into the village. She attended Red Cloud High School and the University of Nebraska.

After graduation in 1895 she worked on a Pittsburgh newspaper for six years and then taught high school for a time. On vacations she traveled to Europe and the American Southwest.

Meanwhile, she contributed stories to McClure’s Magazine. She also accepted a post on the magazine, and in 1908 she became its managing editor. But editing left her little time for creative writing, and in 1912 she resigned to devote full time to writing her own stories.

Her first novel was unsuccessful, but when she turned to frontier themes she won a wide audience. O Pioneers!, published in 1913, was followed by Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918). One of Ours (1922), which won the Pulitzer prize, and A Lost Lady (1923) mourned the passing of the pioneer spirit in the Middle West. Also popular were Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a study of Roman Catholic missionaries in New Mexico, and Shadows on the Rock (1931), a story of early Quebec. She described her clean, meticulous writing style as “démeuble” (unfurnished).

Cather never married. She lived quietly in New York City and traveled frequently in Europe, avoiding public appearances whenever possible. She remained loyal to childhood friends and visited them often. She died in New York City on April 24, 1947.

Sources & Resources

“Cather, Willa,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Birzer, Bradley J. “The Christian Humanism of Willa Cather.” The Imaginative Conservative (blog). August 27, 2013.

Brown, E. K. Willa Cather. New York: Avon Books, 1953.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage, 1990.

McInerny, Ralph. Some Catholic Writers. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007.

Ryan, James Emmett. Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844–1931.

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life