The latest “Western” movie from Hollywood, about aliens and starring a petulant British actor, was a bomb, and that led many “experts” to again predict the demise of the Western as a film genre. Of course, the real reason for the problem is the nihilism of Hollywood, not the lack of stories.

So could I suggest that maybe Hollywood should get around to making the proposed film about Stagecoach Mary and the Catholic sisters?  It would be an ideal role for Oprah….

So who is “Stagecoach Mary Fields”?

From the Cascade Montana community website:

Born sometime around 1812, Mary began life as a slave in Hickman County, Tenn. Few facts, however, are known about her early years. According to some historians, she was owned by Judge Dunn and grew up on his family farm. She became friends with his daughter, Dolly, who was around the same age…. (many years later) when she learned that (Dolly, now a Catholic nun) Sister Amadeus was ill with pneumonia (at a Montana mission) Mary headed west to Montana. Mary must have liked the area. After she had helped nurse her friend back to health, she decided to stay.

She worked for awhile supervising men workers at the mission, until one pulled a gun on her and she shot him first. The bishop was not pleased when he heard about the incident, so Mary moved and got a job delivering the mail, the second woman and first African American woman to work for the post office.

But that job description belies the actual danger she faced to deliver the mail:

Mary drove the mail stagecoach along the trails that linked Cascade to the remote homesteads… Mary loved the job, despite the many dangers and difficulties. Thieves and wolves roamed the countryside, always ready to pounce on prey.

In the winter, heavy snowfalls plunged the trails under drifts.

Yet those who see only her gun toting bad temper and fearlessness might consider that she was also well beloved in that area of Montana.

Perhaps the reason was her friendship with Sister Amadeus, who came west with some of her fellow sisters to start schools for the pioneers and the local Indians.

This book mentions Mary and the gunfight that got her fired, and  and there is more information about both of them HERE. in a book about Catholic schools and hospitals.

Just like the story of the “Buffalo soldiers” is usually ignored in Hollywood and popular history, also missing is the story of how Catholic nuns helped to tame the west.

Many communities needed schools and hospitals, and although most locals were Protestant, many growing communities actually asked Catholic sisters to come and set up schools and hospitals, not only for the Catholics but for all the people.

Locals know the story, since many of these hospitals are still there, but one rarely reads about them in history books.

But the pioneer nuns pop up in unexpected places when you read the history of the wild west, such as finding that the sisters in Santa Fe knew Billy the kid, or that Doc Holliday’s cousin was Sister Mary Melanie (Melanie of Gone With The Wing was supposedly based on her sweet personality),  or that Brigham Young encouraged the sisters when they came west to nurse the local miners. And I was startled to visit one Native American Tribal council meeting room to see a mural that included local heroes who included Mother Katherine Drexel and another sister. The tribal officers explained they were included because their schools taught their children in the past, when few others bothered to worry about them.

So Mother Amadeus established not only a school for local settler’s daughters in Montana but for the local Indians….the sisters not only faced 30 below winters, poor food, but also the bishop, anti Catholicism with the feds and locals, and culture misunderstandings with Native Americans.

In these days, when many sister’s orders are dying out (mainly because their jobs can now be done by laypeople), we should take time to remember their pioneering work. The cliche of the sweet and clueless pious nun never really existed, you know. I know, because when the civil war erupted in one African country where I worked, I was sent home, but the sisters, both local sisters and missionaries from overseas, stayed behind in the danger zones to nurse and teach. And they are still there: nursing and training nurses, running HIV clinics, working with women’s groups to educate the mothers, and educating the next generation.

That is why I find it amusing but believable that when Mary got into a gunfight on the mission, that the bishop ordered her fired, but Mother Amadeus made sure she had other employment…so at age 60 she ended up delivering mail (the second woman to ever get a post office job).

Even back in the good old days, Catholic nuns were not exactly meek and mild brides of Christ…


part of this was posted on my blogspot.

 a biography of Mary at Amazon (but not on line)

more HERE.


Headsup for this post from TYWKIWDBI blog.

and interview discussing Mary HERE.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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