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. (Titled At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, it has been reprinted several times.) 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.
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.