Annotations from the Archive—The Right Reverend George Allen Beecher Letters

The Right Reverend George Allen Beecher, who served as Bishop of Western Nebraska from 1910-1943, shared a long friendship with Willa Cather, and with the whole Cather family. He confirmed Cather and her parents in Grace Episcopal Church in 1922 and performed a memorial service there following Cather’s death. Several letters from Beecher joined our collection this winter.

Two of the letters were written from Beecher to Willa Cather’s partner Edith Lewis, following the memorial service in November 1947. Beecher details the special moments of the day—the way the bright sun poured in through the Cather family memorial windows, and how many of Webster county’s “old-time pioneers who had known and loved Ms. Cather” best, had driven many miles to Red Cloud to pay tribute to the author’s life and work. Beecher’s letters include a carbon copy of the address he shared at that memorial, one of two extant copies, each slightly different.

One of the things Beecher most appreciated about Cather, he says in this address, was her “study and discernment of the human character” and peoples’ “hidden reserves of power.” But Beecher recognized too that those reserves sometimes faltered, and in 1938, as the Cather siblings grieved the death of their brother Douglass, Beecher writes to Elsie Cather, counseling, “We are apt to dwell too much upon the accidents and physical details of our misfortunes and tragedies in life—brooding over things and conditions we cannot help. Sometimes our mental attitude is changed and we lose courage and faith.”

At the time Beecher wrote this letter, he was acknowledging a difficult period for the Cather siblings: in the previous ten years, they had lost both parents and other close relations, suffered through the Depression, and struggled with arrangements for the family home in Red Cloud. Beecher, surely, knew all this when he wrote, “I think it was ‘Longfellow’ who said, ‘But noble souls through dust and heat / Rise from disaster and defeat—the stronger.’” [sic]

“Love knows no limits of time or place,” Beecher continues in his letter to Elsie, “and I can not help feeling and believing that those whom we have ‘loved and lost the while,’ carry with them, in some mysterious way, an unbroken continuity of those happy associations which bound them so closely to us through this brief part of the journey.”

These letters reinforce what we know of Cather’s relationship with Grace Episcopal and with Beecher himself, sources of comfort and connection, long after Willa Cather’s last visit to Red Cloud. Just weeks before her own death, Cather writes to Beecher, consoling his “loss of a lifetime companionship,” following the death of his wife in January 1947. Cather expresses a gladness at having written “by hand” to the Beechers just before Christmas—”It was a kind of homesickness,” she writes, “for you and all your work.”

We are very grateful to a Cather family descendant for the recent donations to our archive, from which these letters were selected. Archival research may be conducted by appointment at the National Willa Cather Center, by contacting our archivist, Tracy Tucker, at