“Whose sister are you?” the man asked.
Sister Blandina Segale was glad for the opportunity to clarify herself. She was feeling intimidated by the cowboy seated next to her on the stagecoach. But her fears dissipated when she realized he had never met a nun before.
“I’m everyone’s sister,” she replied, “a person who gives her life to do good to other people.”
It was 1872, and the two of them were headed from Steubenville, Ohio, to faraway Trinidad, Colorado, on the Western frontier. Blandina, at twenty-two years old, was going out to be a schoolteacher, and the cowboy was going to find his fortune.
Throughout her life, especially during her twenty-one years in the West, Blandina was everyone’s sister. A champion of charity and justice, she helped build schools and hospitals; evangelized outlaws; ministered to prisoners; and befriended Anglos, Native Americans, and Mexicans alike. Where the unwritten law of the West was “Kill or be killed,” Sister Blandina’s law could be summarized as this: “Love, that God may be loved.”
Much to Be Done. This was not Blandina’s first long trip. Her family had migrated to Cincinnati from Cicagna, Italy, in 1854, when she was four years old. Inspired by the missionary spirit of the different religious sisters who had taught her, Maria Rosa Segale joined the Sisters of Charity at age sixteen. After making her final profession, she took the name Blandina, after a second-century martyr. She was then sent to teach in Steubenville, Ohio, for six years before being “missioned” to Colorado.
Blandina joined three other sisters. She threw herself into her work, teaching native populations. But she was not content just to teach. “So much one sees to be done, and so few to do it,” Blandina wrote to her family. “I have adopted this plan. Do whatever presents itself, and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance.” When confronted with a crumbling school building, she took upon herself the task of repairing it, even though she knew nothing about construction. Armed with only a crowbar, she climbed onto the roof and began hacking away. Soon enough, curious passersby and the families of students got involved, collecting lumber and making bricks to complete the project.
Courage on the Frontier. Trinidad was the heart of the “Wild West.” In her first years there, she was introduced to warring Ute Indians, angry lynch mobs, and gunslinging bandits. In the absence of civil authorities to help keep the peace, Blandina drew upon basic gospel principles to counteract violence. She believed that reconciliation, kindness, and mercy were not just concepts preached from a pulpit but necessary virtues—especially for life on the frontier. So she formed her best students into a “Vigilant Club” that would report to her whenever someone was in distress of any kind. No one would be excluded from their care. When one of the feared Ute Indians asked for help tending to one of their sick, Blandina sent her young delegates to bring the boy to her so that she could help him.
It was also club members who told Blandina that a bandit—a friend of the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid—was lying sick and abandoned in an adobe hut outside of town. Blandina and the students began bringing him food and medicine. During one of their visits, Billy the Kid also showed up. To show Blandina his gratitude for her care, he offered to do her a favor—anything in his power. Seizing the moment, Blandina asked him to cancel his plans to kill three local doctors. To her surprise, he agreed—but only because he had given Blandina his solemn word.
Reflecting on this episode with wonder, she wrote in her journal, “Life is a mystery. What of the human heart? A compound of goodness and wickedness. Who has ever solved the secret of its working?” Ever a woman of action, Blandina didn’t try to solve the secret. She had figured out that she could influence people most by entering into their world. They could be drawn to God by experiencing his love through the generous care of his people.
Evangelizing a Murderer. Blandina never forced religion on the West; she piqued people’s curiosity by her own confidence in God and her acts of selfless service. Then, when the moment to evangelize arrived, she was ready.
In the case of Billy’s friend, the ailing desperado, Blandina returned again and again to help him without ever mentioning Jesus. Then one day, the man told her that if she had come to him speaking about repentance, morals, or anything pertaining to religion, he would have sent her away. But since she had cared for him so kindly, not knowing whether he was “Jew, Indian, or devil,” he mustered the courage to ask: Did she think that God could forgive his many sins?
Using words from Scripture, Blandina replied, “If your sins were as scarlet, or as numerous as the sands on the seashore, turn to me, says the Lord, and I will forgive.”
The man said he would give it some thought. As winter crept closer and his condition worsened, Blandina and some of the other Sisters of Charity continued to visit him. On the man’s dying day, he said the Act of Contrition, and those who were present told Blandina that he fell asleep reciting the prayers she had taught him. In her journal that day, Sister Blandina wrote, “He is in God’s just, yet merciful, hands.”
Leading with Love. Two weeks later, in December of 1876, Blandina received a startling notice: she was being transferred to Santa Fe, New Mexico—the end of the trail and thus the farthest edge of the frontier. It was another intimidating assignment, but Blandina was determined to go where she was needed. She recalled a talk, from a recent retreat, on St. Joseph’s journey to Egypt. If Joseph could travel somewhere unfamiliar, then so could she!
Fortunately, Santa Fe reminded her of Italy, with its old churches and narrow streets. The very atmosphere, she wrote, seemed filled with the ethos of the Franciscans who had come before her.
But much as Blandina liked the city, mission work there was not as simple as it had been in Colorado. Instead of just doing good wherever it was needed, she found herself dealing with bureaucracy and red tape. The Western territories were developing, and now county officials were willing to fund some of her charitable works. She received public funds to bury the dead, care for the sick, and even to start programs for the needy at New Mexico’s first health care facility: St. Vincent’s.
Bolstered by Blandina’s efforts, the hospital quickly filled past capacity, until injured rail workers and prospectors were lying on the floor. To solve the dilemma, Blandina gave up her own mattress. One by one, all the Sisters of Charity followed suit, even though Blandina was not their superior. She was just a natural leader. They saw in her an example of their order’s motto, “The love of Christ urges us.”
Find Your Own Frontier. From Santa Fe, Blandina next went on to establish public and Catholic schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spent her final years back in Cincinnati, ministering to Italian immigrants. She died in 1941, at the age of 91. As she lay on her deathbed, one of the sisters asked, “What can I do for you?” She promptly answered, “No, child, not for me, but for God.” Sister Blandina died as she had lived—focused on the needs of the people in front of her, not on her own.
Blandina’s missionary legacy has earned her the title “Servant of God,” as well as the potential to become New Mexico’s first saint. Her life story has long been an inspiration to immigrants, health-care workers, educators, and all advocates for the poor, especially in the Southwest. But beyond these categories, Sister Blandina has a message for all of us: every Christian has a frontier, a corner of the world in need of the charity, encouragement, and selflessness of Christ. Like Blandina, we can pray for the courage to enter these mission fields, reaching unlikely people and places with the love of Jesus.
Kathryn Elliott is a former editor of The Word Among Us.