Willa Cather’s novel, set against a background of Santa Fe’s history and landscapes, can add an interesting, if unusual, context for a contemporary trip.

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather wrote a fictionalized history – a novel, but she called it simply “a narrative” – that long-extended the mortality of a pair of Catholic missionaries to the American Southwest, and fixed their Santa Fe and its starkly beautiful landscape into the consciousness of readers everywhere. If you visit Santa Fe after reading this book – even if it’s years after reading it – you might just feel like you’ve come home again.

For one thing there’s the Plaza and the Palace of Governors, the heart of Santa Fe from 1610 through today. The Plaza had been the center of Santa Fe’s commercial, social and political life for over two centuries already when the future Archbishop arrived in 1851.
The Plaza, The Palace of Governors, and the Archbishop’s Cathedral at the Heart of Santa Fe.

The Palace of Governors is a long, low, enduring example of adobe architecture that served as a seat of government for nearly three centuries – changing hands from Spanish colonial power, to Mexican, to American. With its 4-foot thick walls, its long galleries, small rooms, and secure courtyard, it has served as a state history museum since 1909. In May 2009, a brand new structure opened through the courtyard to house the New Mexico History Museum, and augment the Palace of Governors.

This rustic palace forms one of the four blocks bordering the Plaza, which is a pleasant public square today. Let your imagination play with the fact that this small and busy contemporary park has witnessed centuries of history, including the construction of the archbishop’s cathedral, in the 1870s and 1880s when the plaza extended closer to it.

Today a commercial block intervenes, but the cathedral, with its French Romanesque Revival style contrasting dramatically with the surrounding adobe-lined streets, is easily located. The Archbishop’s church is the active headquarters of Catholicism in New Mexico today – as he intended when he first envisioned it in 1869. It is also something that captures and orients the eye of the tourist. The authors of the Santa Fe Unlimited website, call it “one of the city’s most recognized, photographed and beloved landmarks.” Had the archbishop imagined that as well?

Willa Cather’s Inspiration for Death Comes for the Archbishop

Archibishop Jean Marie LaTour and his friend and faithful assistant, Father Joseph Vaillant, are the names of the missionary pair in Cather’s novel. In the story Cather tells, and in their habits and personalities, they are reliable doubles for historical figures who were among the 19th century builders of the Catholic Church in America. Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf (1812-1889) were friends from their days in a French seminary. They were part of a small group of eager missionaries who left France for Ohio in 1839, and in 1850, Lamy, who was then serving in Covington, KY, was appointed by the Vatican to the newly created Vicariate of New Mexico. He soon persuaded Machebeuf to leave his work in Sandusky, OH, and join him as his Vicar General.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia, grew up in Nebraska, and lived most of her writing life in the East, but she loved New Mexico, its vistas and its history, and traveled there often. It was bound to become a setting for her writing, and during a trip in 1925, she discovered an obscure biography of Joseph Machebeuf that included many letters he had written home to his sister in France, about his (and Lamy’s) frontier experiences.

The letters revealed the personalities of the two clerics and so much information about their daily lives, that she knew she had found her story. In a letter to Commonweal magazine, November 23, 1927 (and reprinted in an anthology), Cather describes in great detail this lucky discovery and her impressions of church history in New Mexico, and why it so interested her.

Museums and Art are Among the Contemporary Pleasures Waiting for You in Santa Fe

In addition to the centuries-old “heart of Santa Fe” represented by the Plaza, and the Palace of Governors, with more recent additions such as Lamy’s Cathedral, the Loretto Chapel (another Lamy project), and the La Fonda Hotel, this small city is abundant with points of interest for the tourist. The history and natural beauty of the region that so captivated Cather, continue to exert a hold on many, but memorable places to shop and eat, and the renowned, seemingly endless art galleries on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road have an important place in the plans of contemporary travelers. Most want to save some time, too, for the numerous downtown museums and the four world-class sites on Museum Hill.

And there’s one more place that readers of Cather’s book might want to know about. Three miles north of the cathedral, in the Little Tesuque Canyon, the Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort is a sprawling complex today with a history to match. In 1853, the property began to be acquired by Lamy as his Villa Pintoresca: “His lodge, on a small hill with a splendid view of the distant Jemez Mountains, consisted of a small dwelling attached to his tiny, private chapel,” according to the history at the Bishop’s Lodge website.

Eventually, the archbishop had gardens, an orchard, and a fish pond, and the resort history states that in his final years, Lamy gained a reputation as “an ecological genius … especially as an arborist and gardener.” Lamy’s chapel, which is still on the property, has been faithfully restored and whether you are a guest at the Lodge or not, you are most welcome to visit.


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