ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - The Catholic Church may consider for sainthood a nun who helped set up schools and hospitals across the American southwest in the 1800s and faced down the region's notorious outlaws, including Billy the Kid.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has received permission from the Vatican to open the cause of beatification and canonization for Sister Blandina Segale, church officials said on Thursday.
Segale, a member of the Sisters of Charity, died in 1941 aged 91. She was a staunch advocate for Hispanics and American Indians, and she was once portrayed on a 1960s television show as "the fastest nun in the West."
Allen Sanchez, president and chief executive of CHI St. Joseph's Children Hospital in Albuquerque, a facility Segale started, said her experiences as an immigrant working with the poor were more relevant than ever in today's New Mexico.
"Her impact on our secular world continues," he said.
The route to possible sainthood is expected to take many years and will include studies of her work and checks for any miracles attributed to her after her death. It is the first time New Mexico has opened such a case for beatification.
Segale's resolve to defend her mission, even against some of the most notorious outlaws in American history, was revealed in letters she wrote from the wild territory that were published as a book, "At the End of the Santa Fe Trail."
In one letter she told how Billy the Kid visited the small outpost of Trinidad, Colorado, where she was stationed at the time, threatening to scalp four local doctors who had refused to treat his friend after a gunfight.
Instead, Segale treated the injured man, and she somehow talked Billy the Kid out of harming the trembling physicians.
In a later encounter with the outlaw, the sister told how she was inside a covered wagon when Billy the Kid tried to rob its passengers. Seeing Segale there, the criminal is said to have tipped his hat to her and left empty-handed.
In her letters, she described Billy the Kid as having "a rosy complexion, and the air of a little boy. ... He could choose the right path and instead he chose the wrong."
Her adventures reached the small-screen in the CBS program "Death Valley Days," in which she was portrayed saving a man from a lynch mob in an episode called "The fastest nun in the West."
Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jim Loney