Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he has received permission from the Vatican to open the "Sainthood Cause" for Sister Blandina Segale, an educator and social worker who worked in Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico.
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, church officials said.
"There are other holy people who have worked here," said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO for CHI St. Joseph's Children in Albuquerque, a social service agency Segale founded. "But this would be a saint (who) started institutions in New Mexico that are still in operation."
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 had refused to treat his friend's gunshot wound. Segale nursed the friend to health, and when Billy came to Trinidad, Colorado, to thank her, she asked him to abandon his violent plan. He agreed.
Another story says The Kid and his gang attempted to rob a covered wagon traveling on the frontier. But when the famous outlaw looked inside, he saw Segale.
"He just tipped his hat," said Sheehan, the archbishop. "And left."
Many of the tales she wrote in letters to her sister later became the book, "At the End of the Santa Fe Trail."
"She was just amazing," said Victoria Marie Forde of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. "It's tough to live up to her example."
Segale found 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 high-profile issues, Sanchez said.
Officials say it could take years possibly a century before Segale becomes a saint. The Vatican has to investigate her work and monitor for any related "miracles."
Those miracles could come in the form of healings, assistance to recent Central American immigrant children detained at the U.S. border or some other unexplained occurrences after devotees pray to her, Sanchez said.
"She's going to have to keep working," Sanchez said. "She's not done."