Thursday, September 7, 2017

         Upon leaving for the Southwest, Sister Blandina was warned about teaching in an isolated area by two traveling frontiersmen. “Travelers are sometimes snowbound for two weeks and you are alone. This though is not the greatest danger to you. Your real danger is from cowboys . . .no virtuous woman is safe near a cowboy” (Segale, p. 13, 1932)

One-room Schoolhouses #6
Sister Blandina Segale, THE OUTLAW’S TEACHER
By Julie Hanks  aka  Jesse J Elliot

            Once again, life proves stranger than fiction. A great example is Sister Blandina Segale, a nun who taught in the Southwest. Tenacious, resourceful, and caring, Sister Blandina set off to teach the children of the Southwest, often finding no school, no supplies, and a country full of lawlessness.  Her unusual encounters with Old West outlaws later became the stuff of legend and were the subject of an episode of the CBS series Death Valley Days entitled “The Fastest Nun in the West," Albuquerque Evening NBC News, June 5, 2014, 5:42, and it focused on her efforts to save a man from a lynch mob. In addition to her encounters with mobs and outlaws (Billy the Kid and his gang), Sister Blandina spent most of her time building schools and hospitals, teaching in Colorado and later New Mexico. She was tenacious in her commitment to education, women’s and children’s health, the welfare of Native Americans, and her religion.
            Segale was born in Italy. Her family moved to Cincinnati where she became a nun with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. She was ordained there and actively fought to eradicate white slavery and abuse to women and children. She arrived in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1877 to teach poor children and was later transferred to Santa Fe, where she co-founded public and Catholic schools. During her time in New Mexico, she worked with the poor, the sick, and the recently arrived immigrants. 
            Sister Blandina was the only healthcare provider in the area willing to nurse a teenage gunslinger in Trinidad, Colorado, who had been shot in the leg. She continued to nurse him for nine months until he finally died. The young man was a member of Billy the Kid’s gang. One day the entire gang showed up to visit him, and the Sister describes her first encounter with the gang leader. “One would take him to be seventeen—innocent looking, save for the corners of his eyes, which tell a set purpose good or bad” (Segale, p. 65).  His fellow gang members, themselves no older than the boy who lies dying were peach colored and innocent looking—in spite of their gruesome love of violence.
            Though Sister Blandina is most remembered for her interactions with outlaws, she was a dedicated educator and nurse who worked hard to develop hospitals and schools in the isolated Southwest communities. One of the ways she persuaded the community to build and improve her schools was recounted in an section taken from her journal.
            Upon arriving in Trinidad, Colorado, I discovered the only schoolhouse was a tumble down adobe. The church leaders once asked if I had a plan by which I could build without money [June 1876]. “‘Here is my plan, I told the Sisters. Borrow a crowbar, get on the roof of the schoolhouse and begin to detach the adobes. The first good [New] Mexican who sees me will ask, ‘What are you doing, Sister?’ I will answer, ‘Tumbling down this structure to rebuild it before the opening of the fall term of school.’”
The other sisters laughed, but she went ahead and began detaching adobes and throwing them down. The first person who came across her was a wealthy Dona Juanita Simpson. . . “when she saw me at work she exclaimed, ‘For the love of God, Sister, what are you doing?’ I answered, ‘We need a school house that will a little resemble those we have in the United states, so I am demolishing this one in order to rebuild a house with a single room.’ Mrs. Simpson returned with six men. . . and in a few days the old building was thrown down, the adobes made and sun-burnt” (Segale, p. 55).
            In less than a month, a new stone foundation was laid, and a schoolhouse was built on top of it (Eness).  In addition to her educational expertise, Sister Blandina also had experience in nursing. During the Civil War, she observed the Sisters of Charity in Ohio nurse wounded soldiers. She felt that this experience would make her more capable of taking care of Native Americans, orphans, and others in need. Little did she know that this experience would create a bond between her and Billy the Kid.
            For the Sister’s kindness toward his dying gang member, the Kid carried out several favors that she requested of him:  1. Do not torture and kill the four doctors who had refused to help his friend who died, and 2. Don’t rob and kill the people on the stage that she was riding many years later.
            She described that last encounter with the outlaw while riding on that stagecoach years later. “He recognized me at once and raised his large-brimmed hat with a wave and a bow. Before turning and riding away, he stopped to give us some of his wonderful antics on bronco maneuvers” (Segale, p. 85).
            She was transferred to Albuquerque in 1881. While there, she helped build three schools for the general population and [sadly] one for the Indians taken as young children from their tribes. (And yet, she sympathized with the Native Americans and the loss of their land and lifestyles.) One of the Indians she sympathized with was Geronimo. Because of this she would later go and teach the Apache women and children.
Once again her services were required in Colorado, however, upon returning to Trinidad, a dilemma arose. No one on the Board of Education doubted her and the other nuns’ academic qualifications, they had all passed the qualifying exams while many other teachers failed, but the schools did not want the specter of religion in the public schools and asked the nuns to exchange their habits for more conventional, secular clothes.
            In the summer of 1892 Sister Blandina went before the Trinidad School Board.  A new school supervisor, unaware and unconcerned with the educational and health accomplishments Sister Blandina and her nuns brought to the area just a few years back, asked her to “change her mode of dress.”
            She replied: “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. . .”  From this time forth, Sister Blandina worked in Catholic schools and hospitals until she died in 1941.  She and her Sisters of Charity are still found in local schools and hospitals—in fact, one such school is less than a mile from my home.      

Works Cited

AP News “Fastest Nun in the West: Blandina Segale on Path to Sainthood” on the Albuquerque
   Evening NBC News, June 5, 2014, 5:42.

Enss, C. (2008). Frontier Teachers: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West. The Globe
   Pequot Press: Guilfort, CT.

Schmiesing, K. “Blandina Segale, Sister of Charity in the Wild West,” Crisis Magazine:
   A Voice for the Catholic Laity. February 25, 2013.

Segale, B. (Sister). (1932). At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. Originally published in 1932 by
   Columbian Press and reprinted in 1948 by Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee.



  1. Her book, "The End of the Santa Fe Trail" is a good read. Thank you for highlighting this very determined and interesting woman. Doris

  2. You are welcome. Interesting enough, I started with Enss's book, and when I needed additional information, found her actual Journal of which you speak and the other sources.