Wild West nun Sister Blandina is focus of a planned TV series
By Kevin J. Jones/CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY
DENVER. Sister Blandina Segale was an Italian immigrant who came to the Wild West town of Trinidad, Colorado, at the age of only 22.
Amid her efforts to start schools and hospitals, she intervened against lynch mobs, conversed with outlaws, and lived such a life that she is now a candidate for sainthood.
Her life and the history of 1870s Trinidad have inspired a television series in development called “Trinidad,” in which Sister Blandina will be the main character.
Much of what we know about Sister Blandina’s life comes from a series of letters she wrote to her sister, Sister Justina Segale, who lived in Ohio. The compiled correspondence, first published in 1941, spans the years 1872–1894.
Brendan Fitzgerald, a writer on the project, came to know Sister Blandina through her letters collected in “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail.” “I fell in love with her voice and just how charming and intelligent, self-deprecating and humble she is, as a character,” he told CNA. “For me as a writer that was my foothold into this whole world. You need someone like that to ground the story.”
Sister Blandina was born Maria Rosa Segale in the small town of Cigana near Genoa, Italy, on Jan. 23, 1850.
At the age of 4, she and her parents emigrated to Cincinnati. She joined the Sisters of Charity at the age of 16. Six years later, in 1872, she was sent alone to Trinidad in southern Colorado four years before the territory became a state.
In the course of her life, she founded schools and built hospitals. She cared for orphans and the poor and advocated for the rights of Native Americans and other minorities. She even encountered the gunman Billy the Kid and members of his outlaw gang.
Among the most famous incidents of her life, she interceded on behalf of her student’s father who had shot a man and was threatened with death at the hands of a lynch mob. Sister Blandina convinced the shooter to write a confession and convinced the shooting victim — who was dying from his wounds — to forgive the shooter before he died.
She faced down the lynch mob. The murderer was given a regular trial, sentenced to life in prison, then released from prison after nine months so that he could care for his four children.
A trailer for the “Trinidad” series describes her as “an unsung hero of the West who never carried a gun.”
“Sister Blandina never backed down and wore her habit like a superhero wears a cape,” the trailer adds.
“I think her faith played an enormous role. It was the sole motivating factor in everything that she did,” Fitzgerald commented. “She made an impact where she could . . . She believed in justice. She believed in charity, obviously. I think she did this because she believed it was right, and she believed that it was necessary. And it was her calling in life.”
The longtime leading actress and director Robin Wright is set to direct and executive produce the project, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported. Regina Corrado, the only woman to write for the HBO series “Deadwood,” is a part of the project, as is novelist and screenplay writer Francesca Marciano.
The series promises regular depictions of other characters who played a role in 1870s Trinidad: Dolores Baca, the matriarch of a founding family of Trinidad; Royal Red Bransford, a boarding house operator who is sister to Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud; and Cathay Williams, a Black woman who posed as a man to serve as a Buffalo Soldier in the U.S. Army. Historical figures with a role in later episodes include Billy the Kid, Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre Ute tribe and his wife Chipeta; Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe; and Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, who would become the first Catholic bishop of Denver.
Fitzgerald said the Western genre of cinema has been “very male-dominated” and too often tells the same story.
“This character of Sister Blandina and the other many extraordinary women who were around at the same time in Trinidad act as a counterbalance to a mythologized vision of our history that isn’t true,” he said.
“Women had an enormous influence,” he said. “The Sisters of Charity haven’t gotten the credit they deserve. They provided social services that didn’t exist in the Colorado of the time: hospitals and schools. They had an enormous impact on the world, a civilizing impact.”
He characterized Trinidad as “a microcosm of the world today.” It was “messy, politically divided, a true cultural melting pot” where Spanish was spoken as regularly as English.
Brendan Fitzgerald is working on the film with his father, Michael. Both Fitzgeralds live in Taos, New Mexico, and have friends in Trinidad, about 80 miles northeast. Michael’s parents were well-known Catholic intellectuals and served as the literary executors for the famous fiction writer Flannery O’Connor.
Michael Fitzgerald began his film career writing the 1979 film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood.” He has produced two other westerns and has worked on movies with well-known actors including Raul Julia, Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson, John Malkovich, and Tommy Lee Jones. He is a producer for the “Trinidad” series.
He told CNA he found this part of history “underrepresented” and hopes that telling the story of the city and its people, a focus on “real Colorado history,” will help balance other depictions of the American West. While the conventions and mythology of the Western and the Wild West are “well ensconced in the American psyche,” the filmmakers hope the series in development will “tell it the way it was.”
“It was a vastly different thing from what people imagine,” Michael Fitzgerald said.
Producers need another $10 million to $15 million to complete the “Trinidad” project.
“I can say with some confidence that the state of Colorado is very much behind this project,” Michael Fitzgerald said.
Among the backers of the series is Trinidad native Jay Cimino, president and CEO of Phil Long Automotive Group. Cimino is the grandson of Italian immigrants. He was taught by the Sisters of Charity and attended Holy Trinity High School, which was founded by the sisters.
“This series is about how one person championed an entire community with honor, integrity, and courage,” Cimino told CNA. “This series is about leadership: One cannot do what Sister Blandina and the other women in this series did without leadership. Through their eyes, we witness a very different, far more accurate version of the Wild West. It’s time their stories were told.”
“Sister Blandina was one person, small in stature, who came by horse and buggy and made a difference. And this can be true of any person. One person can make a huge difference in the lives of many. Sister Blandina epitomizes this — and she did it without guns and violence, but with kindness and ingenuity. We need more of that.”
Sister Blandina left Trinidad when her religious superiors sent her to Albuquerque and, later, Santa Fe. She helped launch the public health system and the public school system in New Mexico and helped build the first hospitals and schools in Albuquerque.
Allen Sanchez, president and CEO for CHI St. Joseph’s Children in Albuquerque, now heads a hospital Sister Blandina founded.
Sanchez has studied the sister’s life extensively. He serves as the petitioner for her sainthood cause, which was opened in June 2014 in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. He said supporters of her cause anticipate another year’s worth of work for her to be established as “venerable.”
Backers of her cause are not involved with the “Trinidad” series but helped advise the drama “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail,” originally envisioned as a television series but completed as a feature film in 2022.
Since Sister Blandina’s cause for canonization was opened, Sanchez said, her cause’s investigators have received reports of 42 alleged miracles involving her intercession. These still must go through an official evaluation process through the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.
Sanchez asked for prayers for the advancement of Sister Blandina’s sainthood cause and encouraged others to pray for her intercession for a miracle.