Legend and history blend in saints’ lives, and America’s Sister Blandina Segale is no exception. Her Wild West ministry and encounter with Billy the Kid mean she has been hailed as “The Fastest Nun in the West” in a 1960s Western that stretches the truth a bit.
But perhaps it captures something important. The Western story genre was beloved the world over, from Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s to Peruvian cinema today for a simple reason: Its focus on a single hero delivering imperiled people taps into the same compelling story the Gospels tell.
In hindsight, Blandina seemed to be destined from birth to be a Western hero.
Though she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Blandina was born in 1850 in Cicagna, Italy, not far from the locations where Sergio Leone would later make “Spaghetti Westerns” such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. She was named for St. Blandina, an early Christian martyr who was put to death via wild beasts and is popularly depicted being thrown from a bull.
Blandina’s connections with Mother Seton start at birth, too. Cicagna is 100 miles up the coast from Livorno, Italy, where New Yorker Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton fell in love with the Catholic faith after seeking healing for her husband there in 1803. As a widow, Elizabeth entered the Church and founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Sisters from her community founded the religious house in Cincinnati that Blandina entered at age 16, after it had become an independent congregation.
It was from there that Sister Blandina went west, assigned to the Western frontier town of Trinidad, Colorado.
The textbook hallmarks of a Western movie hero apply to Blandina. First: The mysterious loner.
“The original western hero,” says Emily Barrosse’s textbook The Art of Watching Films, “is a mysterious loner. … He can act as a capable leader or alone, as the situation requires. As a loner, he stands apart from the community but believes in and fights to preserve its values. His lack of community ties (he usually has no job, no ranch or possessions, no wife or family) gives him the freedom and flexibility for full-time heroics.”
This is how a professed religious sister landing in Trinidad, Colorado, must have looked — a woman whose vow of celibacy meant no husband or children, and whose religious habit showed her allegiance to a higher law.
To get to Trinidad meant using early railroads and traveling rough roads through uninhabited plains to the rocky hills near what is now Spanish Peaks State Park in Southern Colorado.
In her memoirs, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, Sister Blandina gives the no-nonsense message she preached to those seeking to get rich in Trinidad’s mines. “Progress will come, I do not doubt, but spiritual death will also come. And ‘what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’”
Second, the textbook Western hero is “Intelligent and resourceful,” but also “kind, honest, firm, and consistent in his dealings with others, never devious, cruel, or petty.”
Sister Blandina’s resourcefulness in Trinidad meant giving local children an education without much funding. When Blandina saw the barely adequate shelter being used as a schoolhouse, she decided to fix it herself. She climbed up on the roof of the building of the schoolhouse and began prying the tile shingles off with a crowbar.
“For the love of God, Sister, what are you doing?” asked a wealthy woman in town. This woman then helped supply construction workers and supplies for the renovation of the schoolhouse.
Seeing how Sister Blandina got this done, Denver Bishop Joseph Machebeuf said, “Now I see how you manage to build without money!”
Third, the textbook Western hero never stays long. “Peace makes him restless,” says the book. “With order restored, he moves on to discover another troubled community.”
It was in Trinidad that Blandina reportedly met Billy the Kid, and saved the life of one of his gang members by treating his bullet wound. She also opposed lynchings, stressing the need for formal justice.
But a year after landing in Trinidad, the Sisters of Charity sent Sister Blandina 200 miles south to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She would continue to return to Trinidad, and she would also start a school in Albuquerque that stands to this day.
Fourth, in each place, a Western hero’s “personal code emphasizes human dignity, courage, justice, fair play, equality (the rights of the underdog), and respect for women.”
Blandina brought justice to each location with her characteristic sternness and charity, fighting for the rights of Mexican immigrants and Native Americans in New Mexico.
As for standing up for women, when she returned to Trinidad years later, after anti-Catholic forces had gained ground in Colorado, Blandina was told that the school system had instituted a dress code that forbad habited religious from teaching.
“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,” she said.
Fifth, the textbook Western hero, “Even-tempered and peaceable by nature,” nonetheless “does not seek violent solutions but responds with violent action when the situation demands it.”
In Santa Fe, Blandina once confronted the family of two men who were trying to swindle Mexican immigrants out of land, telling their mother, “Your sons are trying to steal land and call it lawful,” and threatening to bring the law. “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.”
For her, faith was the cure for what ailed immigrants and American Indians. “Money will not do it — nor Government Indian Schools either. A truly Christian life, combined with personal sacrifice prolonged into years, will accomplish what millions will not do,” she said.
She built an orphanage and a hospital in the West before she returned to Cincinnati in 1894, where she continued to teach for years. She died in 1941 at age 91.
The CBS presentations of her story gives Sister Blandina wonderful Western one-liners that fit both the real-life sister and the textbook Western hero.
“True religion cannot exist without true justice,” the TV version of Sister Blandina tells the sheriff who is afraid to stop a lynch mob. “One man in Nazareth faced a mob,” she adds. “Fear is like a disease, and I can’t afford to catch it from you.”
In the end, Sister Blandina’s story points to the original mysterious loner who brought justice to a lawless place.
Sister Blandina’s cause for canonization was opened in 2014, to determine if her story is a model of Jesus Christ’s, who early Christians thought would come again from the East to set things right. He is the original Western hero, as expressed in a poem by an unknown author that Elizabeth Ann Seton sent to her spiritual director in 1819.
Dry thy tears Rosalie;
See! Yonder sun
Sinks in the western wave
His course is run:
But when the night has fled,
Thou’ll see him, glorious, shed
His gold beams on thy head,
A new course begun.
Jesus Christ is the true hero that gave St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Sister Blandina hope; He can do the same for us.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Fair Use