Saint Josephine Bakhita
Feast: February 8
Patronage: Sudan, victims of slavery, trafficked persons
Bhakita means fortunate, but the story of how Josephine Bakhita was given this name is far from it.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century the trans-Atlantic slave trade was nearly abolished. This redirected the slave trade to northern Arab and African markets. At this time Bakhita lived in Darfur, where the slave trade was technically illegal but not enforced by the government. This created the circumstances for Bakhita's twist of fate.
At nine years old she was walking through the woods with a friend when two Arab men approached them. They tricked Bakhita and her friend into separating and Bakhita was captured at knifepoint. So began her journey as a slave. Her subsequent experiences were so traumatic that she forgot many details of her early life - even her name. This is how she received the name Bakhita - fortunate one - from her slave-owners, because she was a survivor.
Throughout her time as a slave she endured the worst physical and moral degradation. At thirteen, her owners cut marks into her body, after which they poured salt in her wounds. In her biography she recounted, "I felt I was going to die any moment, especially when they rubbed me in with the salt." She was also frequently flogged, and eventually bore 144 scars on her body from the maltreatment. When she was traded for the fifth time, it was to the Italian Consul, and it was then her life took a turn for the better. She wrote, "This time I really was the fortunate one, because the new master was a very good man and started to like me. I was not punished or whipped, so that it all seemed unreal to me, being able to enjoy such peace and tranquility."
Soon after this, the colonists were expelled from Sudan by military force, and she went with her owner, the Consul, and his friend, Michili, to Italy. Upon their arrival they were greeted by Michili's wife, who immediately saw the slaves traveling with them, and asked if she could have one for herself. She was given Bakhita. With her new owners, Bakhita travelled to Venice, where she was nanny to their daughter, Mimmina. Years pas- sed and the Michili's purchased a hotel on the coast of Sudan, which they left to manage, leaving Bakhita and their daughter behind.
Bakhita and Mimmina stayed in Venice, and went to live with the Canossa Sisters at the Institute of Catechism. It was here that Bakhita came to know Christ. She wrote she had experienced God in her heart "without knowing who it was,” and felt this sustained her during her brutal years of slavery. She wrote, “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...” She did come to know this “Master” and decided to be baptized. On the day of her baptism, she kissed the font, exclaiming, "Here I became one of the daughters of God!" She also received the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation, taking the name Josefina Margarita Afortunada.
Eventually Mrs. Michili returned to Italy to fetch her daughter and Bakhita to Africa. Bakhita, however, was resolved to stay. She wanted to serve God with the sisters. Mrs. Mi- chili was livid, but the Catechism Institute petitioned the Cardinal and Royal Governor, making the case that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita should be considered free, and therefore free to make her own choices. Thankfully the powers that be agreed, and Bakhita was free. She chose to stay with the sisters, becoming one of them herself.
Bakhita, now Sr. Josephine, grew in holiness and faithfully fulfilled her everyday tasks of cooking, sewing, answering the door, and tending to the needs of the poor. Eventually Sr. Josephine was directed by her superiors to write her autobiography, and travelled Italy sharing her remarkable life story, while raising funds for the order. She became well-loved by the people, and touched many lives.
As she grew older, she was confined to a wheelchair, and was afflicted with agonizing years of illness. In her bouts of pain it was as if she relived her years of slavery, occasionally crying out, ”Please loosen the chains ... they are so heavy!" She remained faithful amidst of her sufferings, and with her last words invoked the Blessed Virgin, "Madonna! Madonna!"
Bakhita’s death was mourned by many. For three days her body was put on lit-de-parade, which in French means “lie in state.” It is when a person’s body is laid in a public place of honor before burial. Thousands of people came to pay their respects. People affectionately called her Nostra Madre Moretta, ”Our Black Mother.”
The investigation for her sainthood began shortly after her death, and she was canonized in the Jubilee Year 2000. Bakhita is the first canonized saint of Sudan, as well as the first African to be canonized since the early days of Christianity.