To her 1960s biographers, she was “the fastest nun in the West.” To Italians, she is “the nun with spurs.”
Now, some Catholics hope to be able to call Sister Blandina Segale “saint.”
The case for canonizing the 19th century Italian-born nun, whose run-in with Old West outlaw Billy the Kid is the stuff of legend, was presented at a ceremonial “first inquiry” in Albuquerque on Tuesday. If approved, her name will be sent to the Vatican, where it will head down the long (and somewhat secretive) path toward sainthood.
For Segale’s admirers, the inquiry was an opportunity to look back at her colorful career in the frontier towns of Colorado and New Mexico, where she advocated for better treatment of Native Americans, fought the trafficking of women as sex slaves and occasionally tangled with the marauding men who made the West “wild.”
The woman who would become Sister Blandina was born Rosa Maria Segale in 1850, in the small hillside village of Cicagna just north of Genoa. At age four, she and her family fled their revolution-ravaged home for Cincinnati, where a small Genoese community had already taken root. There, Rosa attended a secondary school run by the Sisters of Charity, and as a teenager she declared to her father that she would become one of them.
Those early years of her life are detailed in the introduction to a collection of her writing, “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail,” which comprises 21 years of letters and journal entries chronicling Segale’s time out West.
The collection begins with a letter from Segale’s Mother Superior: “My dear child, you are commissioned to Trinidad. You will leave Cincinnati Wednesday and alone.”
The 21-year-old Segale was delighted to be going, though she had no idea where Trinidad was. “Neither of us could find Trinidad on the map except on the Island of Cuba, so we concluded that Cuba was my destination,” she wrote her sister Justina. At the station she finally asked where she was headed, and was told, “A little mining town in Southwestern Colorado.”
It took more than a week for Segale to reach Trinidad by train. Though she initially felt “a fainting feeling” looking out at the small scrap of a town, just a series of dugouts built into the hills, she assessed its size with characteristic aplomb: “No wonder this small pebble is not on our maps,” she wrote to Justina.
For several years, Segale remained in Colorado, teaching poor students and working as a missionary among the Ute tribe. In a chatty, colorful tone, she described to Justina the everyday minutiae and unexpected adventure of life in Trinidad, often including an indignant remark about the mistreatment of Native Americans in the town. “Woe to the poor native!” she lamented in one letter, “He has no rights that the invading fortune hunters feel obliged to respect.”
Segale also quickly developed a bold resourcefulness not often seen in demure women of the cloth, but necessary for a young nun on the frontier. In one instance, she wrote, she helped protect a coal mine whose support system had been compromised by two “desperadoes” aiming to kill its owner — the entire operation was conducted in secret, so the outlaws had no one to take out their anger on when their plan fell through.
In another letter, she described walking alongside a prisoner who was the target of a lynch mob, convinced that her position in the church would protect her — and the man — from the crowd’s wrath. The incident was dramatized in a 1966 CBS special that gave her the nickname “the fastest nun in the West.”
“She disarms them from their guns, their hanging rope and their hate,” Allen Sanchez, a lead petitioner for Segale’s sainthood, told the Catholic News Agency.
“She must have been charming to them,” he added. “I think they would fall in love with her and do what she would ask them to do, because she cared for them and she honestly was able to see the dignity of every human being from the innocent orphans to the guilty outlaws.”
Nearly four years into her time in Trinidad, Segale had her famous encounter with “Billy the Kid” — who, at 17, was already the leader of a gang with a price on his head. A few days before, she had heard about a young man who had been shot by a fellow gang member and left to die in an adobe hut. Segale wrote that she found the man and nursed him back to health, and he warned her that Billy and his band would be arriving at 2 p.m. that Saturday to scalp the doctors who had refused to treat him.
“Do you believe that with this knowledge I’m going to keep still?” Segale demanded, according to her journal.
He didn’t. “What are you going to do about it?” the man asked.
“Meet your gang at 2 p.m. this Saturday.”
She followed through on her promise. When Billy — whom Segale described as peach-complexioned and innocent-seeming, except for a steely look in his eyes that “tell a set purpose, good or bad” — asked how he could repay the nun’s care for his friend, she asked that he “cancel” his plans to scalp the town’s doctors.
According to Segale, Billy looked down at his injured friend, who replied “She is game.” Then the outlaw and the nun shook hands.
“Life is a mystery,” Segale mused in her letter to Justina. “… One moment diabolical, the next angelical.”
In late 1876, Segale was sent on to Santa Fe, where she founded several public and Catholic schools. She advocated on behalf of New Mexico’s Native American and Hispanic residents, whose loss of land to swindlers outraged her. After moving to Albuquerque in 1881 she founded St. Joseph’s Hospital and CHI St. Joseph’s Children, a children’s health organization. She also helped rescue a young girl who had been lured to a “house of questionable virtue” and given as a wife to an older man.
At the end of her 21-year-stint in the West, she returned to Cincinnati, where she started the Santa Maria Institute to serve recent immigrants.
Sanchez is the president and CEO of CHI St. Joseph’s Children and one of Segale’s biggest advocates. He told the Catholic News Agency that the 19th-century nun is a role model for modern Catholics.
“She would follow through from the charity to the social justice,” he said. “For example, she would help feed and house the railway workers, but then she would also ask why the railway workers weren’t being cared for. And that’s the call for us today. Charity is important, that’s where you start, and then you move to the social justice from there.”
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe won permission from the Vatican to open Segale’s sainthood cause last year — the first such decree in New Mexico’s 400-year-history with the church, the Associated Press reported.
In order for Segale to become a saint, Vatican officials must investigate her work and find evidence of two miracles that can be traced to her influence. According to the AP, witnesses at Segale’s inquiry Tuesday said that Saint Blandina has already helped cancer patients and immigrants who have prayed to her.
It’s a long process. But Victoria Marie Forde of the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, said at the hearing that Segale is well-deserving of the effort.
“Sister Blandina as a canonized saint will lead and strengthen thousands of others to see that they, too, can fight injustice with compassion and untiring ingenuity,” she said.