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Sainthood sought for 19th-century N.M. nun

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:54 p.m.

ALBUQUERQUE — The Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced on Wednesday that it is exploring sainthood for an Italian-born nun who challenged Billy the Kid, calmed angry mobs and helped open New Mexico territory hospitals and schools.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he has received permission from the Vatican to open the “Sainthood Cause” for Sister Blandina Segale, an educator and social worker who had jobs in Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico.

For the first time in New Mexico's 400-year history with the Roman Catholic Church, a decree calls for beatification and canonization, said denomination officials.

“There are other holy people who have worked here,” said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO for CHI St. Joseph's Children in Albuquerque, a social-service agency that Segale founded. “But this would be a saint (who) started institutions in New Mexico that are still in operation.”

Segale, a nun with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, came to Trinidad, Colo., in 1877 to teach poor children. She later was 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 immigrants. Segale also advocated on behalf of Hispanics and Native Americans who were losing their land to swindlers.

Her encounters with Old West outlaws later became the stuff of legend and were the subject of an episode of the 1952-70 CBS series “Death Valley Days.” The episode, called “The Fastest Nun in the West,” focused on Segale's efforts to save a man from a lynch mob.

Seagale's encounters with Billy the Kid remain among her most popular and well-known Western frontier adventures.

According to one story, she received a tip that The Kid was coming to her town to scalp the four doctors who had refused to treat his friend's gunshot wound. Segale nursed the friend to health, and when Billy came to Trinidad, Colo., to thank her, she asked him to abandon his violent plan. He agreed.

Another story says The Kid and his gang attempted to rob a covered wagon traveling on the frontier. But when the famous outlaw looked inside, he saw Segale.

“He just tipped his hat — and left,” said Sheehan, the archbishop.

Many of the tales she wrote in letters to her sister later became the book “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail.”

“She was just amazing,” said Victoria Marie Forde of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. “It's tough to live up to her example.”

Segale found St. Joseph's Hospital in Albuquerque before returning to Cincinnati in 1897 to start Santa Maria Institute, which served recent immigrants.

Her work resonates today, with poverty, immigration and child care still high-profile issues.

Officials say it could take years — possibly a century — before Segale becomes a saint. The Vatican has to investigate her work and monitor for any related “miracles.”

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