Friday is All Souls Day and for several years now my children and I have spent the afternoon at the cemetery. One of my favorite people to visit on All Souls Day is Denver’s first bishop, Bishop Joseph Prospectus Machebeuf.
(You can read here about how we never made it to the cemetery and why this post was published late.)
By far one of the most enduring and best loved novels we’ve read was Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. If you are familiar with this classic American author you’re probably thinking, “Hmmm….I don’t think Willa was Catholic.”
And you would be correct. Click here to see our exceptions to reading only Catholic women authors.
Yet we’ve read not one but two of her books! Bishop Jean Marie Latour, the central character of Cather’s novel was in real life Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy of the Diocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Another important character was Father Joseph Vaillant, who in real life Father Joseph Prospectus Machebeuf. Here’s something I found out from Wikipedia–something I did not know either of the 2 or 3 times I read this book: “The names given to the main proponents reflect their characters. Vaillant, valiant, is fearless in his promulgation of the faith, whereas Latour, the tower, is more intellectual and reserved than his comrade.”
These 2 priests were close childhood friends and traveled together from France to the United States at a time when many areas of the country did not yet even have dioceses.
Bishop Machebeuf eventually became Denver’s first bishop– and a very unique bishop at that. Upon learning about his life of adventure, his heroic virtue, his unabated suffering, one forms a deep love for his memory and his soul. In fact, writing about him in the Introduction of Death’s Deceiver: The Life of Bishop Joseph P. Machebeuf, Lynn Bridgers says, “There is something magical about Machebeuf. Historian Thomas Feely once observed that almost everyone who comes in contact with him is somehow charmed ….”
Thomas Noel, author of Colorado Catholicism gives the Bishop’s account of how, when he arrived in 1860, he was ” ‘obliged to camp out on the 2 bare lots donated in Denver by the Express Co. and having no neighbors but squirrels [prairie dogs] and rattlesnakes….We walked around to see, not the city but the little village of Denver, made up of low frame stores, log cabins, tents and Indian wigwams on the banks of the Platte.’ “
He spent a heroic amount of time traveling to minister to his people and priests despite a once broken leg that had never set correctly. He also diligently set about borrowing money to buy valuable tracts of land for the future buildings of the diocese and made many “begging” trips to raise money to pay off the debts.
Actually diligently might be an understatement.
Thomas Noel relates that “The priest was determined to establish the first mission of his Denver parish. Upon arriving in Central City, Machebeuf reported:
‘The only place I could find to say Mass in was a kind of theatre and I had to put up the altar on the stage. A pretty good number of Catholics and others attended. At my second visit, Mass was said in a vacant billiard hall, and it required the work of two good men to clean the floor.’
Whereupon, tells Noel, “On Machebeuf’s third visit, he said mass in a dance hall and on the fourth in an empty storefront:
‘Tired of looking at every visit for a new place, I posted a safe man at the door and told him…to lock the door and bring me the key.’
With his Central City parishioners thus corralled, Machebeuf announced, ‘Now my good men, none of you will go out until you contribute or subscribe for a church.’ ”
Well, the money was collected, with the first gift of $50 in gold dust displayed on the altar! The Central City parish was named St. Mary’s.
Now I would be surprised if you too are not “charmed!” If you haven’t read Death Comes for the Archbishop or Death’s Deceiver: The Life of Joseph P. Machebeuf maybe you’ve been convinced to give one or both a try.