Although they lived centuries apart in totally different worlds and lifestyles, one in France and the other, at least partially, in New Mexico, two women, both named Blandina, have garnered attention in recent days. One is a saint (included in a group known as the Martyrs of Lyon) and the other is a candidate for canonization, a cause by an inquiry committee of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe led by Archbishop Michael J Sheehan.
The area known as Gaul (modern day France) was in the sights of early Christians almost from the beginning. Unproven legends have Mary Magdalene, the apostle Bartholomew, and even Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, among possible early missionaries to a region that was mostly untested wilderness. A township existed at Lyon by the late second century, and with it, a thriving Christian community that was inclusive of all classes of people.
It was frequent in those days for persecution to become a local issue when non-Christian people became fearful of the strangers in their midst. Without any understanding of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, it was easy for townsfolk to concoct tales of abnormal behavior. When the population of Christians in Lyon reached a threatening number in 177 AD, it was determined they were all manner of citizens from slaves to masters, and all should be rounded up. The fearful slaves had nothing to lose, and many of them who were Christian turned on their owners and testified to their cannibalism, deviant acts, and ritualistic sacrifice.
Not all the slaves abandoned their faith, and one who didn’t was a fifteen year old girl named Blandina. Already recognized as stubborn and defiant by her captors, the youth was taken with several others to be torn apart by wild beasts in the arena before a cheering crowd. By all accounts, including most notably from Eusebius, the father of Church history, she had already been tortured to the point that her abusers were exhausted and fresh out of new ideas for inflicting pain. Yet, Blandina continued to confess her devotion to Jesus.
In order to mock her and terrorize her fellow Christians, the girl was hung on a stake and placed in such a way as to tease and enrage the animals, which were never able to touch her. In the bright sunlight of the arena, the shadowy image that cowering victims saw appeared crucified. The attempt to frighten had only made their faith stronger. Blandina was left in that condition for a number of days before being returned to her cell. Finally, she was secured in a net and left to the violent trampling of a raging bull. Word of the slaughter was communicated throughout the Church almost immediately, and the location where so many suffered and died is memorialized in Lyon today.
The story of Blandina Segale could have been told in the dime novels of the Old West just like the tales of Billy the Kid, who she knew. Instead, her adventurous, committed, and saintly life is revealed in a collection of letters she wrote to her sister. Both women belonged to the Sisters of Charity.
Blandina was born Maria Rosa Segale in Italy and migrated with her parents to the US at the age of four. She became a Sister of Charity in 1866, and within a short time was sent to serve the poor immigrant community in Trinidad, Colorado.
In those days, much of the southwest was New Mexico Territory including part of Colorado. Trinidad was a stop on the Santa Fe Trail founded by Felipe and Delores Baca and named for their daughter. A city grew up around the hub as mining interests in the region turned from gold to coal and more organized labor. The rapidly growing industry attracted immigrants from all parts of the world, and their needs were many.
Because of her advocacy of women and children’s rights, it is no wonder Blandina took the name of that second century saint. However, her work was not limited to just one group. She stood up for the rights of Indians, immigrants, railroad and mine workers. Over more than twenty years she went from Trinidad to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, then back to Trinidad and Pueblo. In every stop she created schools and/or hospitals and led a formation of human dignity among and toward marginalized victims. Sister Blandina should be especially remembered in our current Mexican border situation as a super proponent and tireless advocate of immigrant children who deserve proper food and medical care, as well as a good education.
The description of her deeds is in the collection of letters to her sister, assembled in one cover as “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail.” Her encounters with Billy the Kid are legendary. She is said to have talked him out of committing an intended murder. She had no hesitation at standing up to any bad guy or crooked sheriff and always seemed to win the stare down. She spoke with and for great leaders of tribes such as the Apaches, Utes, and Comanches. She could express the needs of others, when they were unable to do so. At eighty-one, Sr Blandina was delegated to present the cause for canonization of Mother Elizabeth Seton to the pope in Rome.
Sr Blandina pursued phenomenal administrative duties in Cincinnati, Ohio especially those directed toward immigrants. She founded and for years led the Santa Maria Institute which continues to serve marginalized communities today. However, she did take a break in 1900 to return to Albuquerque, where she founded St Joseph Hospital, still in operation today as CHI St Joseph’s Children, which is the petitioner in her cause for canonization. Blandina Segale passed from this life at the Cincinnati home of the Sisters of Charity in 1941.
The decree was presented to the public by Archbishop Sheehan with permission from the Vatican to begin the investigation on June 25, 2014. With it, Blandina Segale becomes known as a “Servant of God,” and all who have knowledge or evidence for her cause are summoned to bring their information to the committee.
The history of the Catholic Church is filled with stories about the lives of ordinary people who inspire us to be better Christians by themselves becoming a little extraordinary when the situation called for it. These saints attest for all time that there is always hope in God. The times of the two women named Blandina are as different as night and day from each other and from our modern world, but the cause to help one another and inspire one another has never been more relevant.