Willa Cather’s Archbishop

Willa Cather once wrote that the story of the Catholic Church in the American Southwest “was the most interesting of all its stories.” She was particularly interested in the figure of Santa Fe’s first Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), whom she described as “well bred and distinguished… there was something about him both fearless and fine.” Cather renamed Lamy Father LaTour and made him the hero of her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, which recounts the story of how a French priest started a new diocese in New Mexico amidst various challenges, internal and external. Today marks the death of the real Archbishop, who was born in France’s Auvergene region and ordained there in 1839. Soon after his ordination he and his lifelong friend Father Joseph Machebeuf (Father Vaillant in the novel) answered the call for missionaries in the United States. For ten years he worked in Ohio and Kentucky before he was named Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico, an area covering all of New Mexico and Arizona, along with parts of Colorado and Nevada. When Santa Fe was named a Diocese in 1853, Lamy became its first Bishop. To read more about Lamy, check out Paul Horgan’s biography Lamy of Santa Fe, which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in History.
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