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Sister Blandina Segale

Stagecoach rides across the Great Plains. Runaway horses. Murderous outlaws. Her life had all the adventure of a stock character out of a Hollywood western, but she was neither a pioneering homesteader nor a lady of doubtful virtue. She was a Catholic nun, Sister Blandina Segale, SC. Considering that she lived on the margins of civilization during the nineteenth century, we know a surprisingly amount about Sister Blandina.

In diaries and letters to her family, she left us a rich memoir full of fascinating details and amazing tales. Scholars have questioned the veracity of these accounts, and indeed there are discrepancies with the known historical record that must be acknowledged. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that, allowing for some exaggeration in the telling and some errors resulting from writing things down long after the fact, Sister Blandina's story is reliable. A remarkable story it is.

It begins in Cicagna, Italy, where Rosa Segale was born in 1850. When she was four years old her family emigrated to the United States, settling in the bustling Ohio River hub of Cincinnati, which had already been the see city of a diocese for nearly thirty years and which was home to a community of Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters of Charity. In 1866, she and her sister Maria both joined the Sisters of Charity-by that time an independent congregation with its motherhouse in Cincinnati. Maria became Sister Justine and Rosa, taking the name of an early Christian martyr, became Sister Blandina.

Although many assume the writer to be another outlaw or a local sheriff with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, the words were written by someone unexpected - a tiny Catholic nun barely twenty-two years old! Her name was Sister Blandina Segale and she'd come west expecting to teach, not to make the acquaintance of a notorious outlaw. "My old acquaintance, Billy the Kid, is using his gun freely. The people of the territory are aroused and demand his capture, dead or alive. Rewards have been offered for his capture." January 1880

Rosa Maria Segale was born 23 January 1850 in Cicagna, a small Italian village. Her parents were wealthy, prosperous owners of two well-cultivated orchards. For generations, the Segale family had lived and died in their beloved Ligurian hills near Genoa, Italy. Francesco, Rosa's father, was known to the villagers as II Signorino (The Little Lord.) Her mother, Giovanna was loved by all and even elderly women of Genoa came to seek her counsel. A noblewoman by birth, Giovanna's family name was kept secret for years for the family's protection in revolutionary torn Italy.

When Rosa was four, her family had enough of Italy's revolutions and immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio. The family went from prosperous to poor in one thudding jolt. After several years of hardship, losing a child, living in one room and struggling to learn English, a neighbor allowed Francesco to open a fruit stand on a corner. Later, he was able to open a confectionery store. The family prospered in their new surroundings. Rosa especially loved life in Cincinnati. One of the favorite aspects of her new life was watching the Sisters of Charity go about their work among the sick and orphaned. The Sisters and their tales of nursing soldiers on the Civil War battlefields fascinated her.

One day Rosa told her father, "As soon as I'm old enough, I would like to join the Sisters of Charity." In September of 1866, at the age of sixteen, she entered the Sisters of Charity motherhouse with a secret prayer in her heart. Someday, she would like to travel to Santa Fe with the Sisters of Charity in the faraway west. After taking her vows on 8 December 1868, Sister Blandina taught in both Stuebenville and Dayton, Ohio. In 1872, she received word from the Motherhouse to leave for missionary work in Trinidad. Sister Blandina and Sister Justina, her older sister who'd also become a nun, studied a map trying to find Trinidad. The only location they found with that name was an island near Cuba. Happily and obediently, Sister Blandina set out alone for her missionary territory. Only after she boarded the train did she realize the Trinidad she was headed for was in Southwestern Colorado and not a tropical island! Her secret prayer to travel to the Far West had been granted. She wrote to Sister Justina, "No wonder this small pebble (Trinidad) is not on our maps."

Travel in those days required time and endurance! After several grueling train rides, Sister Blandina found herself loaded into a stagecoach with clean hay piled on the floor to keep her feet warm. At a jolting twelve miles per hour, the stagecoach somehow managed to reach Trinidad. On 10 December 1872, Sister Blandina stepped into the dirt of Main Street. She later wrote that, "a fainting feeling came over me as I looked at what I would have thought were kennels for dogs."

The town that greeted her could only be called rough and wild with a capital "W". Drinking, gambling and brawling were some of the main pastimes. Gunslingers, rustlers, and gamblers were many of the citizens she encountered as she worked to build an adobe school. For a nun used to the civilization of the East, it had to be a rude awakening, but Sister Blandina faced her new home with grace, dignity and more than a little stubborn determination. Her motto, "To teach and to meet emergencies as I see them," would help her to survive.

One of the most difficult parts of her life in Trinidad was that she was often asked to help play a role in seeing that justice was served. Although Trinidad had a Sheriff and a Vigilance Committee who tried to observe the laws of the territory, justice was often meted out by mob rule. Lynching was a common solution for many criminals - some of them innocent! Sister Blandina heard plenty of stories about murders and robberies committed by several well-known outlaws, including Billy the Kid. To her complete astonishment, she'd soon make the acquaintance of the famous outlaw under unusual circumstances.

The Trinidad Enterprise, the local newspaper, was filled with the exploits of Billy and his gang. In 1876, the stories were all about Bill Schneider, a member of Billy's gang. After "painting the town of Cimarron red," Bill Schneider rode through the town of Trinidad, past Sister Blandina and her frightened students. She wrote in her journal, "The impression made on me was one of intense loathing, and I will candidly acknowledge, of fear also."

Less than a week later, someone informed Sister that the man had been shot, thrown in an adobe hut and left to die. He and Happy Jack, another gang member, had gotten into a fight at Dick Wooten's tollgate, which was the dividing line between Colorado and New Mexico. Sister's informant asked that she give the man medical treatment and food. Without a second's hesitation, she loaded up a basket of supplies and hurried to his aid. Over the next weeks, she tended the dying man, bringing him food and water and dressing his wounds.

On one visit, Sister Blandina found her patient in a hilarious mood. When she asked him why, he answered that he was going to have visitors at two p.m. the following Saturday. To Sister's surprise, the visitors expected were none other than Billy the Kid and his gang! Then to her horror, she found out the reason for the visit. It wasn't to be just a friendly visit from old friends checking on an injured partner. The main purpose of the trip was to scalp the four physicians of Trinidad who had refused treatment to the outlaw! One of the doctors mentioned was the Convent Physician and a friend of Sister Blandina.

On Saturday at two p.m., Sister Blandina stiffened her courage and appeared at the bedside of her patient. Despite the fact that she faced one of the most feared murderers in the area, she smiled pleasantly. Billy the Kid greeted her "kindly" she later wrote in her journal and expressed his appreciation of her nursing his friend. He then said, "We are all glad to see you, Sister, and I want to say, it would give me pleasure to do you any favor."

Without missing a beat, Sister Blandina told the outlaw that she did have one small favor to ask.

Billy reached for her hand and stated, "The favor is granted."

The favor Sister Blandina asked for, of course, was that he spare the lives of the four physicians!

Trapped by his own words, Billy the Kid did not go back on his statement. He had promised a favor and he would honor it. The four physicians of Trinidad were saved that night due to Sister Blandina's quick thinking. It might have been the first time Billy the Kid was outwitted!

As he left, Billy made a promise. "Any time my pals and I can serve you, you will find us ready."

It was a promise he kept. On several other occasions, Billy the Kid and the nun crossed paths. In 1877, Sister Blandina and a companion, Sister Augustine were asked to accompany a family five miles from Trinidad. Mr. Staab, the man of the family, spoke solemnly to the Sisters about the danger of travel-ing the Santa Fe Trail due to the dangers from Billy the Kid. The outlaw had been attacking every mail coach and private conveyance. Sister Blandina would later write in her journal, "I'm marked for protection as well as anyone wearing my garb." As anticipated, Billy the Kid put in an appearance, recognized his old friend, calmly tipped his hat and rode respectfully away. None of her traveling companions knew just how close they'd come to meeting their Maker.

Sister Blandina was able to visit Billy once in prison. Although he was chained to the floor with hand and leg cuffs, he showed the tiny nun respect, regretting he could not bring a chair for her to sit in.

In 1881, she heard of Billy's death. Only then did she learn his real name - William H. Bonney - and wished that someone had shown him some kindness before he began his path to destruction.

Sister Blandina eventually returned to Cincinnati after twenty-one years in the west. In 1948, her journal and letters were published as a book, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail.

Following a teaching stint in Steubenville, Ohio, Blandina was assigned to work on the frontier, serving the handful of Hispanic and Anglo Catholics-as well as their non-Catholic neighbors-who lived in and around the southern Colorado town of Trinidad. When informed of her assignment, she thought that it meant that she would be going to Cuba; she had never heard of a Trinidad in the United States.

In December of 1872, Sister Blandina alighted from a stagecoach and for the first time beheld the dusty, remote town in which she was to labor. She joined four other sisters who were already residing at a simple convent. She described the existing church as "an adobe structure-with a pretense of a gable roof and double pretense of having been shingled; mud floor, mud walls, wooden candlesticks." And there was a row of pews, "if you can call eight planks nailed together, pews."

One of the main tasks of the sisters was to provide schooling for the settlement's children. In the desperate situation of the American frontier, sectarian differences did not figure as significantly as they might have back east, where Protestant families had a variety of educational options from which to choose. In Trinidad, parents could send their kids to the sisters or they could train them at home; there were no other possibilities. In an arrangement that was not unique to Trinidad, therefore, the Sisters of Charity were the staff and faculty of a public school, erected and maintained with public funds.

In rural Colorado in the 1870s, this did not mean millions of dollars for a shiny new physical plant. Schools were dependent on the largesse of the local community. When Blandina became convinced of the need for a new structure to replace the cramped and aging hovel that had so far served as a school, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Mounting the roof of the old school with a crowbar, she began prying off the clay shingles. A wealthy local lady happened by and cried out, "For the love of God, Sister, what are you doing?" When Blandina explained that she was demolishing the building with the intent to construct a more suitable structure, the lady promised to provide the men and supplies necessary. Blandina herself was assisting with the plastering when she encountered the local pastor, accompanied by a visiting bishop, Joseph Machebeuf of Denver. Blandina put down her hod-bucket and greeted Bishop Machebeuf, who remarked, "I see how you manage to build without money."

One day the regular driver failed to show for a field trip into the mountains. Not wanting to disappoint the schoolgirls, Blandina took the reins herself. She had deposited all of the girls but one at the site of their camp, when the horses hitched to her wagon began to run wild. She managed to keep them on the road for a while, holding fast though the reins cut into her hands. Then, perceiving that to hazard the road ahead at such breakneck speed would mean certain death, she pulled with all her might to force the team to the left onto level ground.

When she awoke, she found the wagon broken apart, with the horses grazing nearby. She located the child near a piece of the damaged vehicle, "blood oozing from her nose and no sign of life." Sister Blandina begged the Blessed Mother to intercede for the girl. When Blandina returned after fetching the horses, the injured pupil was sitting up and able to speak. The two had begun to struggle toward town when they were met by a helpful passerby.

Although education was the sisters' primary apostolate, the exigencies of western life required that they be prepared to perform whatever work of mercy was demanded. They distinguished themselves for their care of the sick. It was this service that led to one of Sister Blandina's most spectacular encounters.

Reality and myth are interwoven in the stories of the outlaws of the American west, but that gangs of desperadoes prowled the plains and mountains seeking easy prey is true enough. There were a number of gangleaders who went by the name "Billy the Kid," William Bonney being only the most famous of them. In 1876 a henchman of Billy the Kid-whether it was Bonney or some other Billy is uncertain-was injured by a gunshot taken during a quarrel with a fellow outlaw.

He was left to die, and none of the area's four physicians would lift a finger on his behalf. Sister Blandina visited him frequently over the ensuing weeks, offering both physical and spiritual comfort. While the fellow was incapacitated, Billy the Kid and his men returned to Trinidad to visit their comrade and to exact vengeance on the town's doctors. Having been apprised of Blandina's efforts, Billy offered that she might request a favor of him. She asked him to spare the lives of the four physicians. He agreed, and left town in peace. The wounded outlaw never recovered, dying later that year.

Near the end of 1876, Blandina was informed that she and another sister had been assigned to a new mission territory: Santa Fe, the terminus of the famous westward trail. After five years there, she moved on to Albuquerque. In both places, she continued to teach the ignorant, to visit the imprisoned, and to tend the sick-all in her own inimitable way. Ever solicitous of those in need, without regard to faith, ethnicity, or economic means, Blandina defended Mexicans and Native Americans who were sometimes treated as second-class citizens by the Anglo-Americans who now ruled the land. In one case, she confronted the mother of two men who were trying to take advantage of New Mexicans'lack of expertise in the English language and American law. "Your sons are trying to steal land and call it lawful," Blandina scolded her. "You may tell them there is a Vigilance Committee which will be highly pleased to meet them. The committee always carries a rope for just such emergencies as your sons are trying to create."

Sister Blandina was no shrinking violet. She was stern yet charitable, at once stubborn and determined yet flexible and detached. In short, she possessed a mix of qualities that were perfect for the challenging conditions of the nineteenth-century American southwest.

When she returned to Trinidad in 1889, she remarked that it "has lost its frontier aspect." The development of Colorado proceeded rapidly and the Old West, a place in which Sister Blandina had thrived, was passing away. Now afforded the luxury of choosing from among other qualified teachers, the school board demanded that the faculty of "Public School Number One"-the Sisters of Charity who had established it-change their "mode of dress." No longer were religious habits a welcome uniform for public school teachers. Sister Blandina replied to the board's chairman with characteristic cheek: "The Constitution of the United States gives me the same privilege to wear this mode of dress as it gives you to wear your trousers. Good-bye."

Blandina left the west behind forever in 1894, when she went home to Cincinnati. She worked among poor Italian immigrants there for the rest of her long life. On January 23, 1941, she celebrated her ninety-first birthday and one month later, February 23, she died.

Her life and work are but one-perhaps extraordinary-example of the indispensable role played by Catholic consecrated religious in the settling and civilizing of the American frontier. That women such as Blandina have not to this point enjoyed a prominent place in the collective American historical imagination is no reflection on their own merits. Catholics, at least, ought to know and appreciate the significance of our forbears such as Sister Blandina, SC.

Donna Alice Patton. Showdown: Billy The Kid Vs. The Nun. History Magazine. August/September 2013.
Kevin Schmiesing. Blandina Segale, Sister of Charity in the Wild West. Crisis Magazine. February 25, 2013. The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.


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