Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of the life of Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, a French missionary. He is given the task of overseeing the diocese of New Mexico that has just been annexed by the United States from Mexico. His flock are Mexicans who are now displaced from their country, Native Americans who are still fighting to keep their land and Americans settling the area. The year is 1851. Latour travels to New Mexico with his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant. They travel from their mission in Sandusky, Ohio to Santa Fe. The trip takes them a year.
When they finally reach Santa Fe, the resident Mexican priests will not accept his authority and Latour must travel to Mexico for the proper papers from the Bishop of Durango. While he is gone, Father Joseph ingratiates himself within the community. When Father Latour returns, he finds the people willing to accept him. The diocese that Father Latour has is huge in scope and there are many priests under his authority. There are also many settlements that do not have resident priests. He must travel to attend to his people and convert the natives. His time is largely spent in traveling.
Father Latour does not adapt as quickly as Father Joseph to his new surroundings. He finds the cultural divide to be challenging and does not understand the native peoples’ religion. He sees it as pagan. Their connection to nature and the natural world is difficult for him to grasp. Father Latour must meet the priests in his diocese and make sure that they are adhering to the rules of the Church. He finds many lacking in moral discipline. They have adapted the religious ceremonies to conform to their culture. The Father finds this appalling. He must tread lightly since the priests are popular in their communities so he must choose his battles carefully or risk losing parishioners.
As a missionary, Father Latour is to convert people to the Catholic faith. He does this to save their souls and bring the people to God. He takes his mission very seriously. He spends much of his time traveling his diocese and dreams of building a great church in Santa Fe. Latour not only gives the people faith he attempts to improve their diet. He plants fruit trees and vegetables in the church yard to give the people a source of fruit in their diet of beans and tortillas.
Father Latour and Father Joseph have been friends since their school days. They ran off together to join a life of missionary work. Their work took them to Ohio where they had great success. This success was rewarded with the diocese of New Mexico for Father Latour. He shows great strength of spirit and a determination that appeals to the Cardinals. He is a young man when he is given the charge of the diocese of New Mexico. They trust him to oversee these wild desert communities. The people are more diverse than Father Latour has ever dealt with and each community has their own way of worshipping God.
Father Latour enjoys having Father Joseph with him because Joseph is more personable. He can befriend anyone of any social status. This helps him to endear himself in the communities that he visits. Latour uses him in the communities that will be difficult to conform. Joseph can make these parishes prosper under his guidance. The people become enamored of Father Joseph wherever he does his missionary work.
Father Latour must unite these communities under the Catholic ideologies and ceremonies. He is strict in his adherence to the rules of the church and expects his priests to do the same. Father Martinez does not want to conform to the strict rules of the Catholic Church. He is a wealthy land owner as well as a priest. He obtained his land by inciting the natives to riot and then turning them in to get their land. Father Martinez is more concerned with material than spiritual means. Father Latour boots him from the church and Martinez forms his own church to rival him. Being a popular priest, many of his parishioners follow him.
Father Latour makes friends in this harsh land. Kit Carson is a friend that Father Latour meets in his early travels through his diocese. Carson has helped tame the wild southwest. In the latter part of Latour’s life, Carson plays a part in displacing the Navahos from their land. Latour does not agree with Carson’s actions in this, but still sees him as a friend.
Father Latour also befriends the native people. One of his close friends is Eusabio, a Navaho. He goes to see him when he needs to contemplate life and meditate. He goes to see Eusabio when he is feeling lonely with his friend Father Joseph away in another parish. Latour wants to bring Joseph back to Santa Fe, but cannot justify his actions. His only reason is that he misses his friend. He feels that he and Joseph are a team and that the diocese is best when they are together. They complement each other.
Eusabio goes to Father Latour for guidance and help when the government relocate the Navahos. He asks Latour to meet with Manuelito, an outlaw chief being hunted by the government because he refuses to leave his people’s land. Manuelito wants him to intercede on his behalf to the government. Father Latour cannot do so because of the Protestant-Catholic divide. The Protestants oversee much in politics and Father Latour does not have any power to influence anyone in the government. He feels that it will cause dissent among the Protestants in the community so he does not want to interfere.
Father Latour befriends men with wealth who can help his church prosper. His life’s dream is to build a church in Santa Fe like the churches that he knew in Europe. He finds rocks in the valley that are golden that he believes are perfect for his church. It takes him years, but he finally is able to raise the funds for the church and hires a fellow Frenchman to build the Romanesque church. It is a grand church that does not fit the landscape as the other churches in the area do. It fits the personality of Latour and his ideas of what a church should be. Latour finds great comfort in his church and wants to be near it at the end of his life.
Father Latour’s diocese grows as people move west for the gold rush. When Father Joseph leaves to head the missionary work in Colorado, they know that they may not see each other again. This saddens Latour. Father Joseph is saddened by this prospect, but also excited to begin a new mission. He loves to convert people and show them the way of God. It excites him to travel to new territories and meet new people. He succeeds in his mission as he has everywhere that his missionary life leads him. Father Joseph makes one last trip to Santa Fe before he is injured and unable to make the long journey again. He stays in Colorado until his death. His funeral is attended by many as he affected the lives of many people who wishes to show their respect. It is a reflection on how he lived his life always thinking of others and putting their needs before his own.
When he retires from his diocese, Archbishop Latour does not return to his native France as many thought he would. He stays in the southwest where he made his home most of his life. He keeps active in the church and trains the new priests that come to practice in the area. It is a new era with the railroad now traveling through the southwest. Where he had once had to travel to the parishes in his diocese by horse or donkey, the railroad makes the country more accessible.
Father Latour becomes enamored by the place that he came to civilize. He made great strides in converting the people to Catholicism even building a great church to rival any in Europe. For his efforts, he has risen the ranks of the church to Archbishop and is respected by his peers. Latour suffered many hardships, but persevered. His faith keeps him always striving forward and he is content at the end of his life and knows that God is at his side. He spends his last days in what was his office of the abbey in Santa Fe. It is the place that he was the happiest where he can remember the past and reflect on his life’s achievements.