Sister Blandina, Servant of God and All-Around Boss

Let’s discuss vision

In my previous post I shared some of my research indicating that for the most part, parishes have all the resources they need to advance Christ’s mission. To access these resources, the pastor needs to ask. If you haven’t read that post, please do so here.

Sister Blandina Segale, Servant of God, lived in the Southwest during the later 1800s. She has many exciting stories in her diary, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail  (run, don’t walk to obtain a copy). One of my favorite stories is when she needed to build a new school in Trinidad, Colorado. Trinidad in those days was a wild place; it had a mixture of Eastern European immigrants, Hispanics who’d been in Colorado for hundreds of years before it became a state, Indigenous Americans, to whom much of the racial animus was directed, and “Americans”—a catch-all for those migrating west looking to manifest their own destiny. Additionally, there were cattle rustlers, swindlers, hustlers, gangs, and Billy the Kid.

Sister Blandina was also a migrant to Trinidad, Colorado. Born in Italy, settled in Cincinnati, Ohio as a child, she eventually became a Religious Sister with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. She was sent to Trinidad. She thought the Trinidad to which she was being sent was on the Island of Cuba; instead she was sent to the dusty, wild backwater in southern Colorado. She was a very strange stranger in a strange land.

Sister Blandina needed a new school to accommodate the local children. The Sisters had no money and none to pay interest on a loan. She was told a new school was impossible. Sister Blandina, a 20-something woman, small in stature, would not be deterred. One day she climbed on the roof of the existing school—in full habit and with a crowbar—and started removing the roof from the adobe bricks.

Passers-by, puzzled, wondered what she was doing. Feeling sympathy for her, one-by-one, the community of Trinidad began to help her. Within weeks, the old school was replaced by a new one. According to the book: “St. Joseph Academy in Trinidad was the first public school, built without a cent in treasure—completed without a cent of debt.”

What can we learn about vision from Sister Blandina? A few things:

  1. Vision and consensus are not the same thing: Sister Blandina saw a need for a school. There was zero consensus from her community that this school was needed or even wanted. Sister Blandina stuck with her vision and proved not only that it was beneficial to the community, but that others would help her achieve it.
  2. Leadership through action (Do the work!): So often we mistake leadership for delegation. When there is no one willing to adopt the vision, sometimes we need to climb up the roof with a crowbar. Others will follow by example.
  3. Finally, stick to your vision even if the tactics may change.  I was recently in Santa Fe at a coffee shop, yards away from the site at which Sister Blandina would later build the first public hospital in New Mexico. The barista, a towering man with giant muscles and face tattoos, and I, started talking. His face had two tattoos, one above each eyebrow. One said “Trust the process.” The other said “Read the room.” I was curious. He said that for him, “Trust the process” meant that you must believe in your vision and trust your ability to succeed. “Read the room” meant that sometimes you need change tactics in order to achieve success.  

Sister Blandina knew her vision: to save souls. In this case, part of saving souls involved building a school. She trusted the process; she knew her vision. She probably figured that she would receive money for a new school. But upon realizing she would have to begin alone, she read the room, grabbed her crow bar, and got to work.

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