An Italian-born nun who confronted Billy the Kid, calmed angry mobs and helped open New Mexico territory hospitals and schools faced her first test for the long road to sainthood on Tuesday.
Supporters and researchers presented their case before the Archdiocese of Santa Fe at a ceremonial "first inquiry" in Albuquerque on why Sister Blandina Segale should become a saint. The public inquiry, headed by former Archbishop Michael Sheehan, was aimed at determining if there was enough evidence to move her case through the largely secret process at the Vatican.
Witnesses said Segale fought against the cruel treatment of American Indians and sought to stop the trafficking of women as sex slaves. They also testified that in death, Segale has helped cancer patients and poor immigrants who have prayed to her for help.
Victoria Marie Forde of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati said documents showed Segale went out of her way to provide assistance to Italian-American immigrants and protect Mexican Americans facing violence in western territories.
"Sister Blandina as a canonized saint will lead and strengthen thousands of others to see that they, too, can fight injustice with compassion and untiring ingenuity," she said.
Last year, the archdiocese received permission from the Vatican to open her sainthood cause. It's the first time in New Mexico's 400-year history with the Roman Catholic Church that a decree opening the cause of beatification and canonization has been declared in the state, church officials said.
Segale, a nun with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, came to 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 immigrants. She 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 CBS series "Death Valley Days." The episode, called "The Fastest Nun in the West," focused on her efforts to save a man from a lynch mob.
But her 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 refused to treat his friend's gunshot wound. Segale nursed the friend to health, and when Billy went to Trinidad to thank her, she asked him to abandon his violent plan. He agreed.
Tales she wrote in letters to her sister later became the book "At the End of the Santa Fe Trail."
Peco Chavez, a lawyer who investigated historic claims about Segale stopping a mob attack, said he found evidence the event occurred, but documents couldn't verify if Segale intervened.
"But she was in Trinidad at that time," he said.
Later, Segale founded 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 being high-profile issues, said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO for CHI St. Joseph's Children in Albuquerque, a social service agency Segale founded.
Officials say determining whether Segale qualifies for sainthood could take up to a century. The Vatican has to investigate her work and monitor for any related "miracles."
Those miracles could come in the form of healings, assistance to immigrant children detained at the U.S. border or some other unexplained occurrences after devotees pray to her, officials said.