As a sign of God’s mercy and bounteous love for his Church, God has been exceedingly generous in giving us many saints.
In fact, Pope Francis personally canonized 813 saints two months into his reign. Collectively, they are known as the “Martyrs of Otranto.” St. Antonio Primaldo and his companion martyrs were inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy who were killed Aug. 14, 1480. The martyrdom took place when the Otrantins refused to convert to Islam when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. Because of the faith-filled actions of the Martyrs of Otranto, the Italian Peninsula was never conquered by Muslim troops.
For those who are counting, the Pope subsequently canonized 25 additional saints, beatified 293 more and made 194 “Venerable.” So, as popes go, this one has been particularly busy, having approved the paperwork for 1,325 holy men and women in just the past three and a half years.
In this august canonization pipeline are three extraordinary Americans, whose causes the U.S. bishops approved at their fall meeting in 2016: Sister Blandina Segale, Father Patrick Ryan and Father Bernard Quinn.
The Nun With Spurs
Other than being a saintly woman, Servant of God Sister Blandina Segale’s other claim to fame is that she’s the only saint-to-be who had respectful run-ins with the infamous gunslinger Billy the Kid.
Sister Blandina was born in 1850 in Cicagna, Italy, near Genoa. After her family migrated to the United States, Blandina joined the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati at the age of 16. On Dec. 8, 1868, she professed religious vows and took the name “Sister Justina.”
In 1872, Sister Blandina was assigned to teach in the schools of Steubenville and Dayton, Ohio. Once there, she received notice that she was needed as a missionary in Trinidad — but not in the Caribbean. Instead, she was being sent to a small town in Colorado, where the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati had recently opened a mission — beginning her ministry in the rough 19th-century American frontier, the so-called Wild West.
Sister Blandina was soon transferred to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she co-founded public and Catholic schools throughout the region. She also worked with New Mexico’s poor, infirm and immigrants. She even took on advocacy work on behalf of Hispanics and American Indians who were being swindled out of their land. She often spoke out against the then-common practice of lynching, too.
During her missionary work, she met the leaders of several American Indian tribes. She served as an educator, legal advocate and social worker, assisting Indians, Hispanic settlers and European immigrants. In addition to her work with the Apache and Comanche, for whom she felt a great deal of sympathy, she fought against human trafficking and juvenile delinquency.
Also in Santa Fe, the good sister collected funds to help build several schools and orphanages. She also extended her ministry to the men working in the mines and railway construction sites. In addition, she established St. Vincent Hospital for the indigent poor.
One day, one of her students informed her that the outlaw Billy the Kid had been seriously wounded and left alone to die in a shack. She immediately went to him and cared for his wounds, saving the bandit’s life, as her cause website explains this and other encounters. He was indebted to her for the rest of his soon-to-be short life.
In another encounter with this desperado, Sister Blandina heard through the town’s grapevine that Billy the Kid was coming to her town to scalp four doctors who had refused to treat his friend’s gunshot wound. Sister Blandina nursed his friend back to health and then sought out Billy, insisting that since she had helped his friend, he was to now abandon his plan to hurt the physicians.
Arguing with nuns is, generally speaking, frowned upon, and thus he acquiesced to Sister Blandina’s request.
And just to show that God has a sense of humor, Billy the Kid and his gang once tried to rob a covered wagon, only to abandon their plans when they found Sister Blandina inside. Billy smiled, tipped his hat and rode off silently, as a sign of appreciation of the religious sister’s past assistance and his regret at inconveniencing her.
The good sister wrote of Billy the Kid in her diary: “His eyes were blue-gray, rosy complexion, and the air of a little boy: [n]o more than seventeen years. He was an innocent, if not for the iron firmness of purpose, good or bad, that we read in the corner of my eye ... could choose the right path and instead chose the wrong.” (Sister Blandina’s experiences were recorded in her extensive correspondence, collected in two books: At the End of the Santa Fe Trail and An Italian Nun in the West.)
As she ministered to prisoners in the region, she met Billy the Kid for the last time.
The two spoke, but there is no record of their conversation. We can only hope that Billy saw his opportunity to make peace with his Creator through the spiritual guidance Sister Blandina offered. After all, he was a baptized Irish Catholic, a son of immigrants. He was baptized in St. Peter’s Church in downtown Manhattan.
Upon hearing of his demise at the age of 21, Sister Blandina wrote, “Poor Billy the Kid, thus ending the career of a young man who started down the slope at the age of twelve to avenge an insult that had been done to his mother ...”
Her event-filled, generous life ended in 1941. She was 91.
An Irish Martyr in Chattanooga
It’s an ingrained, evolutionary imperative for humans to run away from danger. It’s the mark of a saint to run toward it, in the hope of saving others.
Born in 1845 in Tipperary, Ireland, Father Patrick Ryan’s family immigrated to and settled in New York City. He studied for the priesthood in Nashville, Tennessee, and was ordained there in 1869. Father Ryan served as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Chattanooga for six years. In that time, he set up Notre Dame de Lourdes Academy and a parish school, both under the direction of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.
In 1878, a mere two years after opening, Notre Dame de Lourdes Academy served as an emergency hospital and orphanage during the yellow-fever epidemic. Father Ryan tended to the sick at the church and school. In addition, he fearlessly went into some of the worst-hit neighborhoods to assist those in need.
Despite the danger to himself, Father Ryan went from house to house, ministering to the 1,800 sick people who hadn’t evacuated the city.
Father Ryan contracted the disease, and, on Sept. 28, 1878, two days after showing symptoms of infection, he died. He was buried on the grounds of his church on Lindsay Street.
Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, wrote on the diocese’s website, “Father Ryan was a man of holiness and a man of Christ who, through his efforts to minister to the sick, became sick himself. He gave his life for people in trouble.”
As part of the canonization process, Father Ryan was reburied. The ceremony included a 100-horse carriage cortege, which stretched nearly a mile between downtown Chattanooga to the new burial site.
Apostle to the African-American
When Servant of God Father Bernard Quinn’s cause for canonization was opened in Brooklyn on Jan. 13, 2008, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said of Father Quinn, “Almighty God blessed the Diocese of Brooklyn by sending Father Quinn to minister among us. That ministry did not end upon his death, but has continued to grow and take root in the hearts and souls of the faithful and clergy of this church in New York, which has continually ministered to the poor and oppressed. I am delighted to be given the privilege to preside at the opening of the cause of canonization for this priest, who was a courageous and tireless proponent of the equality of all people.”
The son of poor Irish immigrants, Father Quinn was born in 1888 in Newark, New Jersey. Being drawn to the priesthood, he was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1912.
As a newly ordained priest, he recognized that African-American Catholics were neglected in the diocese. So he approached the bishop of Brooklyn, Charles Edward McDonnell, with his plan to minister to them. The bishop refused his request at the time, since the United States was engaged in World War I and the bishop’s primary concern was to identify priests willing to serve as military chaplains. Father Quinn volunteered to do so, but no sooner had he landed in France than the Armistice was declared. However, the chaplain stayed on in Europe, ministering to the wounded for many months afterward.
Upon returning, Father Quinn was granted permission to begin his apostolate in Brooklyn by evangelizing and promoting vocations in that community. A large part of his ministry was caring for physical needs.
In 1922, Father Quinn bought a defunct Protestant church, dedicating it to St. Peter Claver on Feb. 26. Noticing the outrageous number of homeless children in the community, Father Quinn founded an orphanage that was twice burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. Putting his life at risk for the sake of the souls in his flock, Father Quinn rebuilt the orphanage a third time. He later founded Little Flower Children Services that still serves the poor today. He also built a parish school, convent and parish center that welcomed everyone, regardless of their race or religion. He went on to establish additional missions to African-Americans throughout Brooklyn.
Msgr. Quinn died on April 7, 1940, at the age of 52. Eight-thousand mourners attended his funeral at St. Peter Claver Church.
writes from New York.
This is a longer version of the Feb. 5 print issue.