On February 8, the Church commemorates the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian Sister who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Sudan.
Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869, in a small village in the Darfur region of Sudan. She was kidnapped while working in the fields with her family and subsequently sold into slavery. Her captors asked for her name but she was too terrified to remember so they named her “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate” in Arabic.
Retrospectively, Bakhita was very fortunate, but the first years of her life do not necessarily attest to it. She was tortured by her various owners who branded her, beat and cut her.
In her biography she notes one particularly terrifying moment when one of her masters cut her 114 times and poured salt in her wounds to ensure that the scars remained.
“I felt I was going to die any moment, especially when they rubbed me in with the salt,” Bakhita wrote.
She bore her suffering valiantly though she did not know Christ or the redemptive nature of suffering. She also had a certain awe for the world and its creator.
“Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ And I felt a great desire to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage.”
After being sold a total of five times, Bakhita was purchased by Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Two years later, he took Bakhita to Italy to work as a nanny for his colleague, Augusto Michieli.
He, in turn, sent Bakhita to accompany his daughter to a school in Venice run by the Canossian Sisters.
Bakhita felt called to learn more about the Church, and was baptized with the name “Josephine Margaret.” In the meantime, Michieli wanted to take Josephine and his daughter back to Sudan, but Josephine refused to return.
The disagreement escalated and was taken to the Italian courts where it was ruled that Josephine could stay in Italy because she was a free woman.
Slavery was not recognized in Italy and it had also been illegal in Sudan since before Josephine had been born.
Josephine remained in Italy and decided to enter Canossians in 1893. She made her profession in 1896 and was sent to Northern Italy, where she dedicated her life to assisting her community and teaching others to love God.
She was known for her smile, gentleness and holiness.
She even went on record saying, “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”
St. Josephine was beatified in 1992 and canonized shortly after on October 2000 by Pope John Paul II. She is the first person to be canonized from Sudan and is the patron saint of the country.
Saint Josephine Bakhita’s Story
For many years, Josephine Bakhita was a slave but her spirit was always free and eventually that spirit prevailed.
Born in Olgossa in the Darfur region of southern Sudan, Josephine was kidnapped at the age of 7, sold into slavery and given the name Bakhita, which means fortunate. She was resold several times, finally in 1883 to Callisto Legnani, Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan.
Two years later, he took Josephine to Italy and gave her to his friend Augusto Michieli. Bakhita became babysitter to Mimmina Michieli, whom she accompanied to Venice’s Institute of the Catechumens, run by the Canossian Sisters. While Mimmina was being instructed, Josephine felt drawn to the Catholic Church. She was baptized and confirmed in 1890, taking the name Josephine.
When the Michielis returned from Africa and wanted to take Mimmina and Josephine back with them, the future saint refused to go. During the ensuing court case, the Canossian Sisters and the patriarch of Venice intervened on Josephine’s behalf. The judge concluded that since slavery was illegal in Italy, she had actually been free since 1885.
Josephine entered the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa in 1893 and made her profession three years later. In 1902, she was transferred to the city of Schio (northeast of Verona), where she assisted her religious community through cooking, sewing, embroidery, and welcoming visitors at the door. She soon became well loved by the children attending the sisters’ school and the local citizens. She once said, “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”
The first steps toward her beatification began in 1959. She was beatified in 1992 and canonized eight years later.
Josephine’s body was mutilated by those who enslaved her, but they could not touch her spirit. Her Baptism set her on an eventual path toward asserting her civic freedom and then service to God’s people as a Canossian Sister.
She who worked under many “masters” was finally happy to address God as “master” and carry out everything that she believed to be God’s will for her.
Patronage: South Sudan
February 8 is the feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. Her perilous and inspiring journey from slavery to sainthood is fairly well-known as it has been the subject of several books and movies. A summary of her biography may also be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi from 2007. Pope Benedict wrote:
The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.
Aside: This general was Turk, as Sudan was under Turkish rule from 1821 through 1885. As Sr. Josephine herself recounted in detail, her treatment in this household was abominable, even for a slave. She was beaten nearly to death, and while still recovering, she was subjected to a brutal scarring via knife-cuts over her torso and arms meant to mark her for life as a piece of chattel. Her account of her days as a slave may be read in Bakhita: From Slave to Saint by Roberto Italo Zanini. Returning to Spe Salvi…
Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave.
Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”.
Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”
Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God.
Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.
On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people.
The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.