At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, originally published in 1932, is the diary of a nun, a Sister of Charity, named Sister Blandina (born Rosa Maria) Segale who spent 20 years, from 1872-1892, as a Catholic missionary and educator on the frontier of the American West. She was only 22 when she was sent to the small post in Colorado known as Trinidad. She eventually went on to posts in Santa Fe and Albuquerque before returning to Trinidad and then back to her hometown, and the home base for the Sisters of Charity, Cincinnati. As a Cincinnati native, a Catholic and someone who was educated by Sisters of Charity, I am shocked that I hadn’t heard of Sister Blandina until recently. She is being considered for sainthood by the Vatican and is apparently going to be the subject of a TV series. After reading her diaries, written to her sister Justina, who was also a Sister of Charity, the reader gets a sense of Blandina’s special gifts: her intelligence, courage, humor, and dedication to her mission. She was an extraordinary woman who lived an amazing life of service.
Blandina was an immigrant. Born in Cicagna, Italy, she moved with her family to Cincinnati when she was 4 or 5 years old. She joined the Sisters of Charity at 16 and began her teaching career. She was overjoyed when she received the letter from her Superior telling her to go to Trinidad, Colorado, to teach and support the community there. Trinidad was a remote settlement that included US citizens who were trying to get land, Native Americans, and Mexicans. The few houses and other buildings were one-story Adobe huts. Blandina and the other nuns there did far more than teach (although Blandina did manage to get a better school built, teach, and even prepare the children for community performances). They supported the poor, the sick, prisoners, outcasts — any and all who needed assistance, no matter who they were. In order to better support her students, who seem to have come from all different races and classes, Blandina set up a “Vigilant Committee” – a group of students and other community members who would report families and individuals in distress to Blandina so that she and the sisters could help them. In her diary entries, Blandina is quite blunt about the racism and injustice of the frontier. Some of the whites referred to Mexicans as “greasers” and “coyotes”. Blandina saw the effect that the whites’ land grabbing ways had:
…the Mexican cannot forget that all his earthly possessions have gone into the hands of strangers. Woe to the poor native if he attempts to retaliate! He has no rights that the invading fortune hunters feel obliged to respect.
Regarding the treatment of Native Americans, Blandina writes:
Generations to come will blush for the deeds …toward the rightful possessors of the soil. Our government, which poses with upraised finger of scorn on any act which savors of tyranny, lowers that finger to crush out of existence a race whose right to the land we call America is unquestioned. Has custom made might right?
I’d say that’s a mighty progressive view for the 1870s! While a part of me wonders what role the Catholic schools out west played in the destruction of native cultures (as described, for example, in Louise Erdrich’s novels), it does seem to me that Sister Blandina was extraordinary, that she recognized humanity in all the peoples she met and abhorred white westerners taking advantage of local populations. She also abhorred lynchings and injustice, and she famously intervened to prevent a man who had committed murder from being lynched by the mob. (This true story became the basis for an episode of the TV show Death Valley Days called “The Fastest Nun in the West.”)
After spending 5 years in Trinidad, Blandina was transferred to Santa Fe, and later to Albuquerque where she again worked on building schools and also hospitals. Again, without money, she and the sisters managed to provide assistance to natives and US citizens, the poor, sick, criminals, women and children in need. It’s fascinating to read a woman’s account of desperadoes (Blandina actually met Billy the Kid and convinced him not to kill the doctors who had refused medical attention to one of his men; Blandina had attended to the man), and Apaches. Blandina acted as a go-between in a case where Apaches were going to attack some mining camps in retaliation for the murder of one of their own. This woman was fearless and just. She gives a hard piece of advice to the mining camps, and writes that she did as her conscience dictated, but “I’m not certain that theology bears me out.”
In her diary entries, Blandina finds many people to praise for their selfless work. The Jesuits were part of the missions that the Sisters of Charity supported, and Blandina has nothing but admiration for their work. She gives long and glowing accounts of several of the priests she knew there. Blandina also speaks highly of two doctors — one a Jew and the other agnostic — whose dedication to their work and their patients she found exemplary.
While Blandina was certainly a virtuous and dedicated servant to the people out west, it is also true that she was a practical woman who understood how to work with politicians to get funding for the sisters’ projects. After legislators toured hospital facilities and schools, they usually saw the value of the work being done and provided needed funds to keep them running. With the rapid expansion westward and construction of railroads, it was important that medical attention and social support be available to those in need. The flip side to dealing with government and successfully setting up schools is that eventually, when areas become more settled, government wants to have more say about those schools. The nuns had to pass education exams in order to continue teaching, which was not a problem, but they also were told to stop wearing their habits when teaching. This was a problem and it kept Blandina and the sisters out of the schools they had built.
When Blandina returned to Cincinnati in 1892, she was only 42 years old, and she lived to the age of 91 (died in 1941). At the End of the Santa Fe Trail ends with her departure from Trinidad, but I would like to learn more about the work she did in Cincinnati, as it sounds every bit as impressive as her work out West. She was essentially a social worker and a probation officer, recognized by Cincinnati courts for her work; she and her sister had a special mission to the growing Italian community in Cincinnati, which faced bigotry and poverty. Blandina actively campaigned against white slavery and tried to save women and girls from prostitution. This article contained very interesting information on her work in Cincinnati. Overall, Sister Blandina sounds like a smart woman who lived her faith to the best of her ability, a joyful servant undaunted by obstacles in her way. This is a great book for those interested in church history, women’s history, and the American West.