Sister Blandina and the Road to Sainthood

Outlaws, lynch mobs, Billy the Kid, white slavers: Sister Blandina Segale was legendary for the characters she faced down and the institutions she raised up. Does that make her a saint? God knows. Now the Vatican has to decide.

She was short; just over five feet tall even in thick-soled nun’s shoes. See a picture of Sister Blandina Segale later in life—surrounded by schoolchildren in Cincinnati or posing next to film director Cecile B. DeMille on a trip to California—and she looks like Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a wimple. Tiny.


Illustration by Randy Mora

Roland Becker, her great-great nephew, doesn’t recall her size. When she died in 1941 at the age of 91—the oldest member of the Delhi-based Sisters of Charity—he was 3 years old. But he knows her stature. When he was young, Blandina was a local legend because of her work in Cincinnati’s Italian enclaves, and because of a book she wrote recounting the years she spent laboring in the southern Colorado and northern New Mexico territories. The memoir even earned her a spot in pop culture in the 1960s. Just YouTube an episode of Death Valley Days“The Fastest Nun in the West,” in which an exceedingly lithe and toothsome Julie Sommars stops a lynch mob. It’s a glammed-up version of Blandina, but you get the picture: In an untamed land the good sister stood up to evil, championed justice, and taught the value of human dignity.

In most Catholic families it’s a point of pride to share the gene pool with a beloved nun or priest, and Roland’s clan was no exception. “Dad was so proud of her he could hardly stand it,” he says. Even so, it was a surprise back in June 2014 to learn that the family’s sainted aunt was a candidate for actual sainthood. Her Technicolor tour of duty out west—two decades spent uplifting the downtrodden and protecting the vulnerable in a world of lawlessness and greed—is the moving force behind her possible canonization. But Blandina fought the good fight in Cincinnati, too. She ushered a generation of immigrants into a city that was not entirely welcoming and created a social service organization to smooth their path. She went to battle against sex trafficking in an age when its victims were still shamed as “fallen women.” And she strode into the secular world of courts and cops to salvage at-risk children. It can’t be lost on those in the Vatican who are now examining her works and judging her qualifications that the challenges she faced a century ago are hot topics today.

As Lives of the Saints makes abundantly clear, heroic devotion is at the core of a saint’s résumé. The people who are advocating for Sister Blandina’s canonization believe she has that in spades. Whether the Holy See will see it that way is unknowable for now; canonization is a long and rather opaque process. But there’s nothing stopping the rest of us from considering her bona fides.

She was born Maria Rosa Segale in Cicagna, Italy, a mountain town near Genoa, in 1850. Four years later, she immigrated with her family through the Port of New Orleans, up the Mississippi, and on to Cincinnati. Her parents arrived poor and probably illiterate; her father, Francesco, signed his marriage certificate with an X. They lived in a one-room flat and Francesco peddled fruit on the riverfront, scraping together money to open a store and move the growing family to West Fifth Street.

However meager their circumstances, Maria Rosa got an education—first from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who had a school on Sixth Street, then at Mount St. Vincent Academy, Cedar Grove, the forerunner to Seton High School. That’s where she got acquainted with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, a gutsy bunch that nursed soldiers in the Civil War. She joined the community at 16, a teenager with a high school diploma in music. Her older sibling, Maria Maddelene, followed her into holy orders soon after. They became Sisters Blandina and Justina, ready to go wherever they were sent and to do whatever needed to be done.

For Blandina, that meant teaching in Steubenville. That’s where she was in the fall of 1872 when she received a letter from her Mother Superior that briefly and briskly told her to pack up: You are missioned to Trinidad. You will leave Cincinnati Wednesday and alone. Three days later, on a train crossing the flat, featureless midsection of the country, she began keeping a journal addressed to Justina that would one day be published as At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. It was there that she reported, with evident amusement at her own misunderstanding, that her Trinidad was not an exotic Spanish Colonial outpost in Cuba but rather a small mining town in southwest Colorado.

Blandina arrived at the dun-colored collection of adobe huts that passed for the town of Trinidad at the end of 1872. She was there to teach, but she threw herself into the larger life of the territory. She spoke Spanish and cajoled the other sisters (she joined three nuns already serving the town) to learn it in order to better serve the settlers, Mexicans, Native Americans, and laborers that swept through the land. “Where did she learn to speak Spanish?” wonders Sister Judith Metz, archivist for the Sisters of Charity. It is puzzling, but then the origin of Blandina’s many reported talents—driving a wagon rig, mixing plaster, fund-raising—remains mysterious.

She was 22, adept at organizing Christmas pageants and teaching white children in sleepy Ohio river towns—not the best preparation for what she took on in Trinidad. She determined her students—mostly poor, many Hispanic—needed a proper school to replace their airless, vermin-ridden mud den. Informed that there was no money for it, she took a crowbar to the roof of the old building and began prying off chunks of adobe, enlisting the help of passers-by when they stopped to ask what the devil she was doing. Under her galvanizing git’er-done command, a functional new school got built that way—Mexicans arriving with brick molds and whitewash; shop owners donating lumber, shingles, and sashes. “It’s how she did a lot of things,” says Metz, who has studied Blandina’s records. “She knew how to get people involved.” It may not seem remarkable in a nostalgic American landscape of Amish barn raisings and church potluck suppers until you realize she lived in an era of rampant swindling, land-grabbing, and claim jumping, in a place where Anglos, Native Americans, and the descendants of Spanish blue-bloods shared space uneasily.

From the first, she was appalled by what passed for justice in the territories. Within months of her arrival four Mexicans were summarily executed by a posse on suspicion (later proven wrong) of murder, and a man was hanged by a mob within sight of her schoolhouse. Despite the constant danger of Indian attacks, she quickly comprehended the ethnic cleansing and displacement that fueled the battles. “Generations to come will blush for the deeds of this toward the rightful possessors of the soil,” she wrote.

It didn’t take her long to assert herself. In the fall of 1874, she intervened in a case that would become TV fodder a century later. A student came to her in distress: his drunken father had shot a young Irishman—a random act carried out in a booze-fueled rage. A crowd stretched from the jail to the wounded man’s room, waiting for the victim to die so that they could lynch the boy’s father. The shooting was senseless, the town was inflamed, and she knew how these things usually turned out. While another sister penned the dying man’s last letter to his family, Blandina asked if he could find it in his heart to forgive his killer, promising him that justice would be carried out. Then she coerced the sheriff into joining her: they would flank the prisoner, she explained, and walk him past the mob to the dying man’s bedside, where he would confess, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. She believed her presence—along with the sheriff—would keep the crowd at bay, and this public act of grace would ensure that the boy’s father would be allowed to live at least until a circuit judge arrived for a trial.

“What has any sheriff here ever been able to do to prevent a mob from carrying out its intent?” the sheriff blustered when she proposed the plan.

“Be the first sheriff to make the attempt,” she countered.

It was a success, captured by a vivid narrative in Blandina’s journal. The Death Valley Days episode practically wrote itself.

“Restorative justice,” says Allen Sánchez. That’s one of the things that makes Blandina a saint in his eyes. Sánchez is president of Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The tale of the thwarted lynching is central to understanding what Blandina was about, he says: “Protection for the most innocent and the most guilty.”

In 1877, Blandina was sent from Trinidad to serve in Santa Fe for several years, then “missioned” to Albuquerque and then back to Trinidad before returning to the Midwest in 1893. Ostensibly she was posted to these locations as a teacher, and she did teach. But reading between the lines of her memoir, it’s pretty evident that her reputation for getting lots of other things done preceded her. Arriving in Santa Fe, she wryly observed that she had been charged with “miscellaneous undefined labor.” There—and everywhere else, it seems—she considered her vocation as cart blanche to throw herself at whatever challenges came her way. Schools with corrugated metal roofs appeared and adobe construction gave way to durable brick under her supervision. Asked to build a trade school for girls in Santa Fe (with no money: “Do as you did in Trinidad” her superior told her), she even insisted that pipes be installed in anticipation of the day when the town “wakes up” to running water and gaslight. She successfully lobbied lawmakers for relief funds for indigent care and solicited donations from miners and railway workers. Even as Geronimo and his Apaches terrorized the territories, she cultivated relationships with the Indian population. She confronted a white teacher who was taking money for—but not teaching—native children, and went to bat for a Hopi settlement that was swindled out of government supplies.

The tale of the thwarted lynching is central to understanding what Blandina was about. “Protection for the most innocent and the most guilty.”

While she had multiple postings, it was the community of Santa Fe that seems to have held her heart. She returned there briefly in 1900 to help build a hospital—the forerunner to the institution that Sánchez serves today. Beyond his own organization, what is most significant to Sánchez is Blandina’s work as a champion of human dignity and social justice.

It was Sánchez and his organization’s board who became “petitioners of the cause”—the advocates for her sainthood. To get things rolling, he explains, they had to present evidence of her “heroic virtue”: “We had to prove that the accounts in her book are historically true.”

And so he put a gumshoe on her trail—actually a lawyer who undertook a secular investigation into some of the most dramatic tales in her book. Looking into the account of the thwarted lynching, the investigator identified the judge who handled the case, found the name of the killer, and located the court records—all of which coincided with Blandina’s presence in Trinidad. And the Cincinnati archives of the Sisters of Charity turned up a letter from 1930 written by the killer’s children, thanking her for saving their father’s life. “The story is true,” Sánchez says.

Accounts of her encounters with Billy the Kid are widespread; they were also harder to substantiate. In At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, Blandina tells a story about dissuading his gang from scalping the town’s doctors when they failed to treat a wounded gang member. She writes of visiting him in jail, and there’s an anecdote in which he’s bearing down hard on a stagecoach when he recognizes Blandina—black-bonneted, steely-eyed—watching him from the stage window. The ambush is called off.

In all likelihood, Sánchez says, the person Blandina knew as Billy the Kid was the highwayman William Leroy, who terrorized the territory under the same name. But the stagecoach thing? Whoever the bad guy was, it happened. Once when Sánchez was telling the story on a New Mexico NPR station he used the name of the wealthy merchant who, according to Blandina, was also on board. The studio line rang. “That’s my great-grandfather!” a woman crowed. And another family’s genealogy records were piled on the sainthood scale.

“She sounded too good to be true,” says Sr. Judith Metz of her early encounters with the legend of Blandina. “But the more I read, she was amazing.” Fearless, Metz says. “And maybe pushy.”

Blandina left the land of rustlers and cowpokes in 1892. The parting was not a happy one. She’d returned to teach in Trinidad, which had grown to a town of 9,000. The public school she’d built was thriving but it was an increasingly secular community, and she was asked to no longer dress in her black habit when she taught, and to be answerable to the elected school board. She said adios and returned to Cincinnati.

While her Queen City setting was less cinematic, she ended up using the muscle she’d flexed out west to launch a second—less storied but just as vigorous—assault on human indignity. By the 1890s Cincinnati was receiving its share of the new wave of Italians flooding the U.S. Unlike Blandina’s Northern Italian clan, the newcomers were largely from southern Italy. Still desperately poor and mostly illiterate, many were also fairly indifferent to the Catholic Church. Concerned with news of Methodists and Presbyterians setting up missions for the newcomers, the diocese asked Blandina and Justina to go to work. With $5 for carfare and the “unbounded confidence of God in their hearts,” they set off to see what they could do.

Writing in 1922, journalist Anna C. Minogue documents their efforts in The Santa Maria Institute, a book about the beginnings of what became one of the first settlement houses for Italian immigrants in the U.S. The “unbounded confidence” that Minogue refers to sent the women into tenements where the Sicilians and Southern Italians were clustering—the East End, Walnut Hills, and in Fairmount along Queen City Avenue. Pretty quickly their efforts to protect their countrymen from proselytizing Presbyterians were overshadowed by the newcomers’ profound needs. The sisters found an uneducated and marginalized population in a community that, Minogue implies, largely treated them with disdain. Other immigrants had been assimilated into Cincinnati without coddling; why should these be treated differently? The Segale sisters’ memories of coming to America might have been dim, but they saw what needed to be done.

In addition to Minogue’s writing, the story of Blandina in Cincinnati is documented by Sr. Justina, who, until her death in 1929, kept the records for the Santa Maria Institute. She captures Blandina in action in the daily challenges of their mission: searching for rooms to hold classes for children and their parents; entreating priests and parishioners to help with funds; finding homes for orphans, food for desperate mothers, medical care for the indigent and aged. By the early 1900s Blandina and her colleagues were working with the juvenile court, taking custody of miscreant children to keep them out of the penal system and assuming responsibility for women released from prison. Blandina also began visiting the city hospital’s notorious Ward O, where, according to Minogue, the “girls of the underworld” were treated to “refit them for their occupation.”

Justina did not have her sister’s flair for storytelling, and her journal is more of a (heavily spiritual) business document than a dramatic narrative. But there are entries that open a window into the life of our city in the early 20th century. Case in point: October 1918—the height of the Spanish Influenza epidemic. On October 28, Justina records that everything is closed down—churches, schools, any public gathering. Blandina was sent to a family in need: the father had died in a hospital and his wife passed away at home not knowing her husband was deceased. Blandina went to take charge of their three orphaned children, and while she was there the woman’s brother came to make funeral arrangements. By the time he returned home, his own wife was dead.

In 20th century Cincinnati, Blandina’s work was less shoot-from-the-hip than it had been in the Southwest. She was part of an emerging culture of social workers and probation officers in the increasingly modern city. The frontier DNA that sent her to face a lynch mob occasionally resurfaced and ruffled feathers. The most famous incident involved an encounter in Ward O.

She had gone there intent on talking with the women and girls who were (according to Minogue’s account) getting treated for sexually transmitted diseases. It was a soul-saving mission, but in the course of evangelizing, Blandina was confronted with the reality of these women’s lives. A teenager confronted Blandina and told her story: She was lured to Cincinnati from a small town with the promise of domestic work; when she arrived she was virtually enslaved. If Blandina wanted to save women’s souls, the girl said, why didn’t she put her energy into nailing the madam who had ruined her? Blandina got the woman’s name and address, went to the brothel and told the owner to close down, warning her that an informant was ready to testify against her. The brothel owner countered by feeding a story to the newspaper that someone “disguised” as a Sister of Charity had tried to extort money from her.

A bit of a public brouhaha followed. Asked by her superior if she had been the nun in question, Blandina said that she had. The superior, “timorous of unpleasant publicity,” according to Minogue, told her to drop it. And she did. Ultimately she battled human trafficking in more conventional ways, finding shelter for girls escaping prostitution and pushing for legislation that would hold railway porters responsible if they guided new arrivals to procurers at the station. But Minogue laments that Cincinnati, not Chicago, might have become the epicenter of what she calls “the anti-white slavery movement” if Blandina had had her way.

Her Cincinnati exploits were not the stuff of legend, but she knew that her experience out west had been unique. She wrote about it in a series of short stories for a Catholic publication that were collected and published as a book in 1933, the year she retired.

Metz uses air quotes around “retired” when we talk in her office at the Sisters of Charity motherhouse. While Justina died in 1929, Blandina lived to be a feisty 91. We’re standing next to a cart crammed waist-high with boxes and files—the local Blandina dossier, a stack that does not look like it could be attributed to anyone who spent time idling in old age. Which she did not. In 1931, at the age of 81, she met with Pope Pius in Rome to plead the sainthood case of Elizabeth Ann Seton—Mother Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity, who was ultimately canonized as the first American saint in 1975.

Last December, it was Blandina whose heroic virtues—including copies of the copious material in Metz’s office—were delivered to the Vatican. A representative from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati was there, along with Sánchez and Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Ramírez is “Postulator of the Cause”—the church official who had to make sure the material was gathered and presented correctly to the Vatican. He spent time in the Sisters of Charity archives (“Her life is very well documented,” he says), and he visited her grave. Part of his job, he explains, was to make certain that she actually existed, that she is now dead, and that no cults have grown up around her person.

One reason the wait for canonization is usually long is the effort to identify the miracles which, to the faithful, confirm that a Servant of God (Blandina’s designation now) is at work answering prayers in heaven. Plus, there is what the secular world would call the vetting process—“Making sure there is absolutely nothing to tarnish the cause,” Bishop Emeritus Ramírez says. And in a modern age where it is comparatively easy to document good works, there are a remarkable number of men and women up for sainthood—30 people under consideration for beatification and canonization from the U.S. alone, including Fr. Stanley Rother, a priest from Oklahoma murdered by a death squad while serving in Guatemala 35 years ago. So, even though canonization isn’t a competition, it’s a crowded field. Still, Blandina has been noticed. “Apparently, after we left, the Vatican began working on it right away; there was a hearing in January,” Ramírez says. “We thought that was remarkably soon.”

Allen Sánchez sees Blandina as “a saint for our time” and has high hopes that her good works—her passion for the poor, children, immigrants, and the disenfranchised, and her battles against human trafficking—will stand her in good stead with today’s Vatican. It may take years. For some, it has taken centuries.

Roland and Nancy Becker and 36 other family members went to Italy in 1998 when a piazza in Cicagna, Blandina’s birthplace, was dedicated to her. That alone was a thrill. So it’s hard to conceive what sainthood would feel like. But, says Roland, “I’ve been told, ‘Don’t hold your breath.’ ”

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