Did you hear the one about the nun and the outlaw? It sounds like some corny joke, but this is no joke, my friends. This is the true story of Sister Blandina Segale and her noteworthy interactions with the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. Some of the most interesting characters of the Old West came from the most unexpected places . . . in this case, from the Catholic Church! And now, more than a century later, the Sister who earned a reputation of being the “fastest nun in the West” could quite likely become canonized as a Saint.
Sister Blandina Segale was born Rose Maria Segale on January 23, 1850, in the Italian village of Cicanga. When little Rose was just a bud of four-years-old, she and her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. “The Calling” came early to Rose and, as a child, she told her father that she wanted to join the Sisters of Charity as soon as she was old enough. She was just sixteen when she entered the novitiate and became Sister Blandina. A little later, her older sister, Maria Meddelena, became a Sister, too.
In 1872, Sister Blandina received word that she would be moved from her teaching position in Dayton, Ohio to missionary work in Trinidad. Sister Blandina was ready for the challenge. The idea of traveling to a foreign country to minister to non-believers was thrilling to her. It wasn’t until she boarded the train for her destination that she realized she was traveling to Trinidad, Colorado!
On December 9, 1872, the twenty-two-year-old Sister arrived in Trinidad. Upon arrival, she discovered that the town was inhabited by an inordinate number of outlaws. Mob rule was commonplace and lynching was a regular occurrence.
Breaking Bad Habits
One day, a mob gathered near the home of a man who had been shot. Their plan was to wait for word that the man had died and go to the jail where the shooter was being detained. They planned to drag him from the cell and lynch him without waiting for that pesky trial. The accused happened to be the father of one of Sister Blandina’s students. The student told Sister Blandina what was about to transpire, which set the wheels of redemption in motion.
Sister Blandina went to the bedside of the dying man and asked if he would forgive his shooter and allow the law to determine the punishment, rather than a bunch of rope-happy men. It’s pretty hard to say, “No,” to a nun, so the man agreed. She approached the sheriff and he agreed that the prisoner could go to the dying man’s bedside and ask forgiveness. The prisoner marched through the angry mob with the sheriff on one side and Sister Blandina on the other. Nary a peep was heard from the mob . . . they dispersed and allowed the court to determine the prisoner’s fate.
We’ll Have Nun of That!
As another story goes, a student arrived in Sister Blandina’s classroom with the news that a member of Billy the Kid’s gang had been accidentally shot by another gang member. The man had been left to die in a near-by adobe hut. Sister Blandina, gathered up supplies, hiked up her habit and marched over to lend a hand. She spent time caring for the wounded man, both physically and spiritually. She provided him with food and she also answered his questions about God.
During one of her visits, the wounded man told her that Billy the Kid and his gang were going to be arriving in town on the following Saturday at 2:00 in the afternoon. They were coming to scalp the four town doctors who had refused to treat the outlaw. There was no way Sister Blandina was going to stand by and wait for that to happen! At 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, she stood waiting in the middle of Main Street to meet one of the world’s most notorious outlaws and his partners in crime.
When Billy the Kid spotted the nun, he said, “We are all glad to see you, Sister, and I want to say, it would give me pleasure to be able to do you any favor.” Legend goes that she took the hand of the outlaw and said, “I understand you have come to scalp our Trinidad physicians, which act I ask you to cancel.” While that request didn’t make him happy, Billy the Kid is said to have agreed and the lives of the doctors were spared.
Stick to Your Nun
Years later, Sister Blandina was transferred to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Remarkably, here she once again met up with her old acquaintance. Billy the Kid, who had been captured, but had escaped from jail. Word was that he was on a spree of robbing passengers on stagecoaches. Sister Blandina was on a stagecoach when she got word that the outlaw was nearby. When a group of men approached the stagecoach, brandishing guns, Sister Blandina told them to put away their weapons. She made purposeful eye contact with Billy the Kid, who raised his hat, bowed in greeting and rode away. It is said that she always did wonder if things would have been different for Billy the Kid if someone had helped him to find his way to spirituality.
Patience of a Saint
Sister Blandina remained in the West for twenty-one more years. She worked with the poor and the sick. She advocated on behalf of Hispanics and Native Americans. Then she and her Sister-sister returned to Cincinnati, where they set up an Italian welfare center, the Santa Maria Institute, which helped immigrants in acclimating to America. She passed away in February 1941. Letters she had written to her sister over the years were compiled in the book, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, and it is a lovely read.
This past June, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced that it is exploring the possibility of sainthood for Sister Blandina. But, the road to sainthood is long, it seems. Vatican official say it could take as long as a century before Sister Blandina becomes a saint, because her work and any related miracles must be thoroughly investigated. I guess that’s where the patience of a saint comes in.