Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Servant of God Blandina Segale
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Servant of God Blandina Segale (1850—1941), American missionary, sister, and Western Frontier figure once dubbed “the nun with spurs,” befriended Billy the Kid and, it is said, saved many from being lynched.
Born Rosa Maria Segale in a mountain village near Genoa, Italy, she emigrated with her family at the age of four and entered the Cincinnati-based Sisters of Charity in 1866. She taught school for a few years, and was then sent as a missionary to Trinidad, in the Colorado Territory.
Sister Blandina traveled alone by horseback, stagecoach, and train. Upon reaching Trinidad, she began working tirelessly, as she would all her life, on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, and the prisoner. “Poor wild hearts, how they feel full of anger and treated unfairly,” she wrote of her Apache neighbors.
She also quickly became acquainted with frontier justice. Stories abound—perhaps embellished over the years—of her ability to confront and calm armed men, facilitate reconciliation between criminals and victims, and prevent lynchings.
She once learned that a member of Billy the Kid’s gang had been shot and was dying in a shack. Sister Blandina ran to his aid and gave his attackers a good scolding, saying, “I see that with a hard head you find yourself not able to kill him with one shot to the head.” She proceeded to dress the man’s wounds—thereby saving his life—then talked Billy the Kid out of shooting the four doctors who had refused to treat his friend.
“Poor Billy the Kid,” she wrote, upon the notorious outlaw’s death, “a young man who started down the slope at the age of twelve to avenge an insult that had been done to his mother.”
In 1877, Sister Blandina moved to Santa Fe, where she continued her work in jails and charity wards. Four years later, she went to Albuquerque and opened a Wayfarers’ House. Characteristically ahead of her time, she was involved as well with the issues of juvenile delinquency and human trafficking.
She returned to Ohio in 1893 to work with inner-city Italian immigrants. In 1897, she and her sister Justina, also a nun, founded the Santa Maria Institute, the first Catholic settlement house in the United States.
In 1900, she returned to Albuquerque for two years to help start Saint Joseph Hospital, still welcoming the underserved and in operation today as CHI Saint Joseph’s Children.
In 1933, Sister Blandina retired to the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse in Cincinnati. She died there eight years later, at the age of ninety-one.
Her story had been the subject of novels, TV shows, and a comic book. In 1966, she was featured in a CBS Death Valley Days episode called “The Fastest Nun in the West.”
A more apt title might have been “The Most Clear-Eyed.”
“I wish I had many hands and feet, and a world full of hearts to place at the service of the Eternal,” she observed in her memoir, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. “I have adopted this plan: Do whatever presents itself, and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance.”