Book 1 Chapter 3
3. The Bishop Chez Lui
Summary: On the afternoon of his first Christmas Day in his new episcopate (and his new residence), Bishop Latour writes a letter to his brother in France, then shares a meal with Father Vaillant (who also cooked it). Latour and Vaillant speculate about the future of their ministry in New Mexico, wondering how far from home their work will ultimately lead them.
Analysis: This chapter gives us our first substantial insights into the character of Latour’s partner in ministry and close, long-time personal friend, Father Joseph Vaillant. We learn that, in Latour’s absence, Vaillant has won the people of Santa Fe over to the new bishop. Though not a physically attractive man (“his countenance had little to recommend it,” p. 37; biblically-minded readers may be reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, traditionally identified in Christian interpretation as Jesus: “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him,” Isa. 53:2, KJV), Vaillant is marked by his “kindliness and vivacity” (p. 37). We are thus reminded again, as we were in the previous chapter, that priests are called to accomplish their work by virtue of their identification with Jesus.
The text mentions “Fort Marcy” (p. 33), which really existed: it was a Santa Fe military reservation, the first such outpost established by the United States Army in New Mexico, in 1846. We also receive our first introduction (though he does not actually appear in the chapter) to Christopher “Kit” Carson. Kit Carson also really existed: he was “an American hunter, Indian agent, and soldier… [and] one of the best-known and most competent guides available to explorers of the western United States” (Biography. © 2006 through a partnership of Answers Corporation). Cather thus establishes her story firmly within an authentic historical context. Indeed, the historical references remind us that Cather’s book is, in fact, inspired by the life of the actual first Archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean-Baptiste Lamy. Similarly, Father Vaillant is a fictionalized version of Father Joseph Machebeuf, later Bishop of Denver, Colorado.
(The phrase “chez lui” in the chapter title translates as, “at home.”)