Kidnapped at age 7. Forced into slavery, sold repeatedly. Walked hundreds of miles barefoot to a slave market. This kind of ordeal should break a little girl’s spirit, but it added strength to the character of St. Josephine Bakhita.
Josephine was born in 1869 in the Darfur region of Sudan, the niece of a Daju tribal chief. Around 1877 she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and forced to walk hundreds of miles barefoot to a slave market. She was given the name “Bakhita,” which means fortunate. She was held in slavery for more than 12 years, bought and sold repeatedly. She soon forgot her original given name. One of her early owners beat her violently, then sold her to a Turkish general to be a maid to his wife and daughter. While in their household, the wife ordered Josephine to be “scarred”; her flesh was cut with a knife and salt was rubbed into the wounds to make them permanent. She bore more than 100 scars from the assault.
Josephine was later sold to Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan. When he returned to Italy, she asked that she be taken with him. Shortly after they arrived in Italy, Josephine was given to the Michieli family and became nanny to their daughter, Mimmina. She accompanied Mimmina to lessons conducted by the Canossian Sisters
in Venice. When the Michieli family travelled, they left Josephine in the care of the Conossian Sisters, where she realized her deep calling to learn more about and serve God. When the family returned and went to fetch Josephine, she refused to leave the convent. The matter became one for the courts, where it was determined that slavery had been outlawed in the Sudan before Josephine’s birth, which technically made her status as a slave illegal. She was free.
Josephine could have done anything or gone anywhere with her new-found freedom; she chose to stay with the Canossian Sisters. She was baptized, on Jan. 9, 1890, taking the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata (Fortunata is the Latin translation of Bakhita). It is reported that on that day she was also confirmed and received first communion from Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, who later became Pope Pius X. She took her final vows as a Canossian Daughter of Charity in December 1893.
Josephine served the rest of her life in Schio, Venice. She served as a seamstress, cook and doorkeeper at the convent, and occasionally worked with other sisters to prepare them for missionary work in Africa. The people of the town loved her gentle and cheerful disposition and viewed her as their protector. They called her “Sor Moretta (“little brown sister”) or Madre Moretta (“black mother”). It was legend that during World War II, no harm came to the residents of Schio because Sister Josephine lived there.
She once said that if she were to meet her kidnappers, she would thank them, for without their actions she would have not later come to know and love Jesus.
As she aged, health issues forced her to use a wheelchair but she continued to serve as best she could. On Feb. 8, 1947, she spoke her last words: “Our Lady, Our Lady!” and died. After her death, she was interred at the Church of the Holy Family of the Canossian convent of Schio in 1969.
Although news of her beatification was banned by the government in the Sudan, in 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the country and brought the news to her people. “”Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free. Free with the freedom of the saints.” She was canonized Oct. 1, 2000.
Inspired by her story of hope, Pope Benedict XVI used Josephine’s life story as an example in his encyclical “Spe Salvi” (In Hope We Were Saved).
St. Josephine Bakhita’s Feast Day is Feb. 8
She is the patron of Sudan and of the kidnapped.
Read her biography at Franciscan Media: https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-josephine-bakhita/
Jem Sullivan, from Catholic News Service, recently wrote about the life of virtue of St. Josephine Bakhita. Read her column here:
Read Pope Benedict’s “Spe Salvi” here.