I just love this book. It is such a beautiful story, of friendship and faith and good works. I knew that it was a fictionalized account of a missionary bishop in the mid-1800s, in the southwestern United States. I think I expected a story of suffering and despair - and not just from the title. While there is suffering, and occasionally even despair, including some dark nights of the soul for the bishop, there is also beauty and grace, joy and peace.
When I started reading this book, I opened it to the first chapter, where "One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico." I read on, learning that he was a young French priest. A few pages further on, we are told "The traveller was Jean Marie Latour, consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in partibus at Cincinnati a year ago - and ever since then he had been trying to reach his Vicariate." It was only later that I discovered I had accidentally skipped over a prologue ("At Rome") that explained how Bishop Latour was chosen to be the Vicar. (An Apostolic Vicariate may be created when the Catholic Church in a particular area is not developed or organized enough for a diocese.)
The story follows Bishop Latour as he reaches Santa Fé and begins the work of organizing the vicariate, recently separated from a diocese in Mexico, as was the territory itself. Joining him in this work is Fr. Jean Vaillant, his friend from seminary days in France, who came with him to serve as a missionary in Ohio. Together they make the long trips to visit the scattered Native American settlements and the Mexican ranches, as well as the few small towns. Over the years, the Bishop reluctantly allows his friend to follow his heart into missionary work in the isolated areas, though he needs his help in administration and misses his friendship. They carry on their work of evangelization, serving the people of their vast territory where they find them and as they find them, with love and compassion. They are both such wonderful characters, men of faith, sustained by their long years of friendship - but not plaster saints. There is a lovely section where Fr. Vaillant cooks Christmas dinner for the Bishop, trying to bring a touch of their French home to this new world; and another where he charms two lovely little mules out of a reluctant rancher.
In later years, Fr. Vaillant accepts a new mission field, in the wilds of the Colorado gold rush, becoming a bishop himself. Bishop Latour becomes an Archbishop, as Santa Fé is promoted first to a diocese and then an archdiocese. As he grows older, he resigns the title and the active work to a younger man. Given the title of the book, I hope it isn't a spoiler to say that, as he feels death coming on, he returns to the episcopal residence in Santa Fé. "The next morning Father Latour wakened with a grateful sense of the nearness of his Cathedral - which would also be his tomb." The weeks that he spends quietly in his room, waiting for death, reminded me so much of my beloved Mr. Harding, in Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels. Both men of faith, gentle and kind, they are loved and cherished by their people. And like Mr. Harding, the Bishop's mind sometimes wanders through the past. I love too how Willa Cather weaves other stories through this one, legends, histories, the Bishop's own past. And she writes so beautifully about the landscape, the scenery, and the plants and flowers of New Mexico. Bishop Latour is very much attuned to the natural world, drawing strength and consolation from it to the end.
This story took on an extra dimension for me from its setting and characters. In the day job that supports my book habit, I am the Director of Archives & Records for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. [All opinions expressed here are of course my own. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.] From my reading for work, I knew that Bishop Latour's real-life counterpart was Father Jean Baptiste Lamy. Like the fictional Bishop, Father Lamy came through Galveston on his way to his new vicariate. There he had a brief meeting with the Bishop of Galveston, Bishop Jean Marie Odin - a fellow Frenchman. Odin later wrote Lamy a letter of advice, based on his own experiences. Like Latour/Lamy, Odin came to Texas as a missionary, when it was an Apostolic Prefecture (even less developed than a vicariate). Texas had recently won its independence from Mexico, and Catholics who once belonged to Mexican dioceses were left in limbo. Odin faced many of the challenges that Lamy/Latour did, though he also had a more settled population in the eastern part of Texas. His letters in our archives, and the accounts of other missionaries here, are full of the same kinds of experiences that Willa Cather wrote about. Her story just feels so right and true, the very best kind of historical fiction.
I also checked on the real-life counterpart of Father Vaillant. He was Joseph Projectus Machebouef - isn't that a great name? Like the fictional bishops, he and Lamy were both from the diocese of Clermont in Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne. I may be the only historical-geek reader who actually felt the need to track that down.
I have read a couple of Willa Cather's books, but so many years ago that I've forgotten even the titles. Now of course I am wondering what else I have been missing. Any recommendations of what to read next/first? Honestly, I can't imagine anything better than this book, and I can't believe how long I left it sitting on the TBR shelves. Knowing of the close friendship between Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield, I will be shelving their books together - and this book has the same warmth and life of Canfield's best.
N.B. Published in 1927, it also fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.