On July 18, Mt. Carmel Wellness and Community Center opened the Sister Blandina Wellness Gardens, a 1-acre community recreation space in the heart of downtown Trinidad. Named after Sister Blandina Segale, a nun from the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati who came to Trinidad in 1872 to set up a school for the rough-and-tumble mining community — and funded by Jay Cimino, CEO of Phil Long who was born and raised there — the Gardens represent the rebirth of a town that 10 years ago was on the decline.
Decades before Colorado Springs was the City for Champions, Trinidad was known as the City of Champions. Like many towns in southern Colorado, Trinidad’s economy was driven by the mining industry, and when that industry left town so did residents, turning a once vibrant community into a shell of its former self. As both residential and commercial property values have soared along the Front Range, developers and investors have set their sights on Trinidad as a prime site for investment and redevelopment.
While much has been made of the efforts of Denver-area developers like Dana Crawford and Kayvan Khalatbari to revitalize Trinidad, Cimino has been pouring resources into the community for over a decade. In 2007 he purchased Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, the current home of Mt. Carmel Wellness and Community Center. “This church meant a lot to him,” explains Gina Sacripanti, corporate communications director for Phil Long Dealerships. “He did his sacraments here. He was an altar boy, his mom played the organ.”
When Cimino purchased the property, it was in rough shape. “It was falling in and dilapidated and sat empty,” says Ashley DiPaola, the Mt. Carmel Community Center manager. “They refurbished it and opened up its doors in 2010, providing health care as well as wellness programming and a community center and event space.”
Since then Mt. Carmel has worked to fill gaps and address needs in the community, partnering with Salud Family Health Centers to provide medical and dental care to residents who previously had to drive hours to access health care, or go without. “The CEO of Salud is actually a Trinidad hometown boy who grew up here,” says DiPaola. “Salud took over the primary care and behavioral health [at Mt. Carmel] in 2018. We opened the Dental [clinic] in partnership with Salud, which services the Head Start kids. Medicaid is a well known and well used insurance here in town. A lot of kids were not getting dental care, or having to go all the way to Pueblo to get dental care, so when Salud opened, that helped serve all the kids on Medicaid who needed dental assistance. Starting next year, hopefully, they’ll be going into schools to treat kids there.”
According to data provided by Sacripanti, Mt. Carmel reports 1,833 health care visits during the last quarter. Their services aren’t just limited to health care, however. “We have over 23 wellness programs that serve a wide variety of populations from kids to seniors,” explains DiPaola. “Once COVID hit, obviously we had to change how we did things drastically and quickly. All of our programming went to virtual classes, and we found the need in our community of people who needed help with food assistance. We started our food box program in April, and so far we’ve served 42,000 meals to the community.”
The establishment of Mt. Carmel Wellness and Community Center provided the health infrastructure needed to attract new residents. “Las Animas County is ranked one of the lowest counties in Colorado for health and wellness,” says Sacripanti, who explains that the newly opened Sister Blandina Wellness Gardens are an extension of Mt. Carmel’s mission. “Jay Cimino set a goal to raise Las Animas County’s ranking to the top 50 percent by 2030. It’s a lofty goal. Part of that is that access to health care.
Health care is also the holistic approach to the person — the spiritual, the physical, the mental. When someone doesn’t have one of those pieces it affects everything else. It’s really about the holistic approach to a person’s health. Jay had a vision to expand so that people can also have the opportunity for spiritual reflection. Spirituality was at the center of Trinidad. The tribute to Sister Blandina is really because she was the heart of what Trinidad is today. There’s a lot of immigrants in this community still. She was all about immigrants, giving a voice to those who didn’t have a voice, and giving justice to all. Those are key components to having a city and the community thrive. Jay wanted to provide a beautiful center location, in the heart of Trinidad, that allows that nurturing of mind, body and spirit. It’s an extension of Mt. Carmel’s mission and campus.”
Segale isn’t just the namesake for Trinidad’s newest community space. On June 29, 2014, the Vatican decreed the opening of the sainthood cause for Segale. The road to sainthood in the Catholic Church is a long and involved process, but Segale could be the first saint with ties to Colorado. The first step in the process is a thorough investigation of the life and virtues of the servant of God.
“I was contacted by the petitioner, Allen Sanchez [executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops] of Albuquerque,” says Peso Chavez, a Santa Fe private investigator hired by the Vatican to investigate Segale. “I’ve known Allen for years and years and years, and he knows of my work, and asked me if I would be interested in doing an investigation involving the opening cause of the beatification and canonization of Sister Blandina Segale. I wholeheartedly accepted.”
Chavez had his work cut out for him. He spent nearly three years delving into historical newspaper reports, federal court records from the National Archives, and jail records from Cañon City to corroborate details of Segale’s life recounted in her 1932 book, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. “My investigations basically start with the client — you go to the source,” says Chavez. “In this case all I had was her book. The very first phase of the beatification is to gather any kind of testimony about the life and virtues about the servant of God, to examine her writings and establish if there were any heroic virtues as a servant of God. One of the first heroic virtues was when she arrived from Cincinnati to Trinidad. She was 21 years old, small in stature. In her book she describes that on a certain day, she was teaching and one of her students came in and says, ‘Sister, my father is in jail and they’re getting ready to hang him.’”
Chavez used historical records to establish the facts of the case. “It was on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 18, 1875,” says Chavez. “Morris James shot a young man by the name of Miles Brannon and [Brannon] died on Wednesday, May 19. That event did in fact take place and she saved Morris James from hanging.”
The threat from lynch mobs in frontier towns like Trinidad in the late 1800s was very real. “One hundred and fifty years ago Trinidad was tiny,” explains Chavez. “There were some ranchers, farmer types, and the mines were going. Here you have this situation where it was literally the Wild, Wild West. The acting governor at the time, Frank Hall, made a trip to Trinidad and he said, ‘Trinidad has the most frontier style of living in the whole Territory of Colorado.’ Lawlessness ruled.”
Though Segale interceded on James’ behalf, not everyone accused of a crime was so lucky. Chavez recounts a report from a historic newspaper he found during his research that illustrates the frontier justice of the time: “The sheriff arrested him and took him before a magistrate for preliminary trial. While he was in the judge’s office a crowd of citizens gathered around the judge’s office and finally took forcible possession of his body, carried him to a vacant building and put him to a vote of all present, whether or not he should be hung at once. The voice of the people was for hanging, and this just sentence was executed with commendable promptness.’ It’s not like we have certain rights now and we have motion hearings and evidentiary hearings. It was done that quick, and it was quite a threat.”
Segale’s actions saved James’ life. “The National Archives in Denver contain all the federal circuit court proceedings,” says Chavez. “They’re beautiful books, leather-bound, and all the handwriting is in cursive. I looked through stacks and stacks of stuff. He was convicted and went to do hard time at the territorial penitentiary. There are letters from one of the children that talks about Sister Blandina and how grateful they were. That’s a heroic virtue that was demonstrated. That’s something the archdiocese wanted to find out.”
While Chavez’s investigation into Segale’s heroic virtues was a major part of his work, he also looked into Segale’s relationship with notorious sinner William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Bonney was an infamous outlaw who killed eight men and was himself killed by Lincoln County, New Mexico, Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 21 in 1881. “She did write in her book that she had three different encounters with Billy the Kid,” says Chavez.
Such connections would prove useful for a nun in the frontier west. Bonney was known for holding up stagecoaches, stealing horses and robbing settlements. One time, as recounted in her book, Segale’s stagecoach was stopped by Bonney’s gang. When the famous outlaw saw that it was occupied by Segale he simply tipped his hat and sent her on her way.
The investigation into her relationship with Bonney was made difficult by the fact that during that time there were actually two outlaws with the moniker “Billy the Kid” — Bonney and a man named William LeRoy. “There was questioning about her encounter with Billy the Kid,” says Chavez. “Some people speculated that it was a guy by the name of Billy the Kid LeRoy, but that wasn’t the case.”
Chavez is convinced Segale met the real deal. He was able to place Segale at the same Santa Fe jail as Bonney. “In the 1880s Sister Blandina moved from Trinidad to Santa Fe. She happened to be in the jail where she was going to visit Edward Kelly, who was accused of murder. While she was there she saw Billy the Kid, and he remembered her. It was William Bonney. That became a question for some people and some historians.”
The Sister Blandina Wellness Gardens is a nod to the Wild West history of Trinidad. The centerpiece of the Gardens is a bronze statue of Segale created by Manitou Springs artist Fred Darpino. Though bedecked with extensive landscaping, featuring a combination of pine and deciduous trees including blue spruce, hawthorns, pear and plum trees, as well as shrubs and flowers and modern water features, the structures in the garden were built with reclaimed materials from the historic buildings of Trinidad. “On this site, when Mr. Cimino purchased it, there were three buildings that we tore down,” explains Karl Gabrielson, a managing partner with the Trinidad Development Group, who oversaw construction of the Gardens. “Most of the timbers in the structures are recycled. All of the roofing material is recycled. It all comes from buildings that we’ve torn down. The façade on this building was the second story façade of a building that we tore down and disassembled piece-by-piece to reassemble it here on-site.”
The opening ceremony for the Sister Blandina Wellness Gardens was attended by Gov. Jared Polis, the Most Reverend Bishop Stephen J. Berg of the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, Bishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheridan, who recently retired as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, the Most Rev. Bishop James R. Golka of the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico and Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana M. Lew. There were musical performances by the Mt. Carmel Youth Orchestra. There was a dramatic performance by Linda Weise and Elena Soto of the Colorado Springs Conservatory, as well as a storytelling performance by film producer Michael Fitzgerald, who according to Sacripanti is working on a project about Segale’s life.
Cimino’s investment in Trinidad isn’t limited to nonprofit ventures like Mt. Carmel. Since 2007 he’s opened Phil Long Toyota in Trinidad and a number of other businesses. “In addition to Mt. Carmel, Jay Cimino has a number of other buildings here,” says Sacripanti. “He started all the development in 2015. We have a restaurant here, we have a construction business here. All those things were in place, gearing up, but the fruition of all the work is now being seen.”
Most recently, Trinidad celebrated the reopening of the New Elk Coal Mine, bringing industry and jobs to the region. “That was a huge deal way back, and then it ended up closing down,” says DiPaola of the mine that originally operated from 1951 to 1994. “It just reopened in April. We held their open house here, a company out of Australia [Allegiance Coal Limited] bought them, but that’s brought a huge influx of people in and created jobs as well as all of the businesses Jay has created and Dana [Crawford], who has put a lot of money in Trinidad. They’re really helping to revitalize the downtown area.”
In addition to business and industry, Trinidad is becoming a destination for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. “Fishers Peak State Park is also attracting outdoor recreation groups,” says Sacripanti. The 2020 opening of Colorado’s second-largest state park is bringing new opportunities to Trinidad. In October the town will host The ’Rad Dirt Fest, a gravel trail bicycle race and marathon event.
The influx of industry and opportunity has also attracted the attention of financial and real estate services, a good omen for a community looking to grow. “There’s a lot of businesses that are open, even some businesses that opened during the pandemic,” says Sacripanti. “5 Star Bank, they just opened a branch on Main Street. Keller Williams is opening a realty office here, so you also have businesses looking to expand their current operations in Trinidad as well.”
The dedication of the Gardens coincides with the ongoing economic revitalization of Trinidad. “The intent of all these revitalization projects that Jay [Cimino] has undertaken is to spur additional redevelopment,” says Gabrielson. “We’re just ecstatic that it really is happening.”