Santa Maria Community Services, Inc. was co-founded by two Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, and biological sisters, Blandina (born Maria Rosa) and Justina (born Maria Maddalena) Segale. The Sisters, born in Italy, immigrated to the United States in 1855, eventually landing on the shores of the Ohio River. They had a long list of nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews and great-great-nieces and nephews who are proud of the legacy they established over 125 years ago.
Among those great-great-nieces is Lisa Stagge Schall. “We have learned a great deal about Aunt Sister Blandina, but very little about Aunt Sister Justina,” Lisa said. Sister Blandina ministered in Colorado and New Mexico, prevented a lynching, and saved the life of one of Billy the Kid’s gang members who had been shot. Her adventures were famously documented in the book, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. Sister Justina worked with the poor, she taught in Trinidad, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico for 15 years. She spoke English, Italian, and Spanish. She learned brail while working in Lansing, Michigan, so she would be able to educate the blind in their religion. Both sisters returned to Cincinnati in the last part of the nineteenth century.
Sister Justina was working with Italian immigrants in the Basin area of Cincinnati. Sister Blandina and Sister Justina were missioned, at the request of Archbishop William Henry Elder who asked the Sisters to expand their outreach. “The Sisters naturally felt a kinship and empathy for the immigrants since they, too, had come to America as immigrants,” Lisa said. With just five dollars seed money, The Santa Maria Italian Educational and Industrial Home was born in 1897.
Lisa’s mother, Ruth Mary Becker Stagge, often shared her memories of the Sisters with her daughter throughout the years. “Mom recalled that when she was a young teenager, Sister Blandina would be driven to their home in a chauffeured limousine,” Lisa said. “Of course, Sisters did not drive cars at that time, and would have been driven by an escort. Sister would bring a little treat for Rita [Ruth’s sister], who was only six or seven years old. Her favorite was cashews.”
Lisa’s grandmother, Marie Rose Cordano Becker, was the Sisters’ niece. “As Sister Blandina described the landscape, buildings, and surroundings that she saw during her travels out west, grandma would draw the scenes on paper to be used as the illustrations for the book, At The End of the Santa Fe Trail.” The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati still have those illustrations at the Motherhouse in Mt. St. Joseph, Ohio.
“Aunt Rita lived at Mt. St. Joseph Boarding School during Sister Blandina’s retirement years,” Lisa said. “Aunt Rita was able to visit her great-aunt often during that time.” In fact, Rita was the last member of the family see Sister Blandina alive. “Knowing Sister Blandina and spending time with her must have been an amazing experience,” Lisa added.
After reading At The End of the Santa Fe Trail, Lisa said it gave her insight into the life of her great-great aunt. “I could feel her love for people and her great love for Jesus,” she said. “I was so impressed by what amazing women my great-great aunts were,” Lisa concluded.
Sister Justina passed away in 1929 at the age of 82 and Sister Blandina passed away in 1941 at the age of 91. Both dedicated their lives to building strong families by helping them work toward achieving their goals, a mission Santa Maria continues to this day. Sister Blandina is in the second stage of being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church*.
“Sister Blandina and Sister Justina have left an amazing legacy for our family,” Lisa said. The surviving family members strive to live their lives in the service of others, a behavior their great-great-aunts modeled all those years ago. “Knowing Sister Blandina is on her way to Sainthood gave me the idea to tell my children, ‘We have Sainthood in our DNA – we can do this!’”
*The cause for Sister Blandina Segale’s canonization as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church was approved by the Vatican in 2014. Based on documents submitted, Sister Blandina is now to be called by the title, “Servant of God.” “Servant of God” is the first part of a four-step process. Step two is “Venerable,” step three is “Blessed,” and step four is “Saint.”