St. Josephine Bakhita

Josephine Bakhita was born in Olgassa in the Darfur region of southern Sudan, sometime around 1868.  She was kidnapped by Arab slave traders around the age of 9 and sold into slavery at the Khartoum and El Obeid slave markets.  She was resold several times and suffered greatly at the hands of her owners.  She was tattooed all over her body in a painful process involving razor cuts and salt.  After this trauma she lost all memory of her original given name.  She was given the name Bakhita, which means fortunate one in Arabic.

In 1883 she was sold to Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul in Khartoum.  He was the first owner who showed her any kindness.  In 1885 Legnani took her to Italy and eventually gave her to a friend, Augusto Michieli, as a nursemaid for his young daughter, Alice, called Mimmina.  When the Michieli family returned to Africa, Mimmina and Bakhita stayed with the Canossian Daughters of Charity at their boarding school in Venice.  Mimmina received instruction in the faith, and this was Bakhita's first real exposure to Christianity.   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 real desire to see Him, to know Him, and to pay Him homage.”    She realized that she had experienced God as a child, but until now did not know who He was.

When the Michielis returned to Venice, they wanted to take Mimmina and Bakhita back to Africa with them.  By that time, Bakhita had come to understand that God wanted her to be free.  “I am sure the Lord gave me strength at that moment because he wanted me for Himself alone.”  She refused to return to Africa with the Michieli family.  When Mrs. Michieli went to court to secure the return of her “property”, the Canossian sisters and even the cardinal of Venice testified on Bakhita's behalf.  The judge's final ruling was that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita had been free since she came there in 1885.

Bakhita remained with the sisters, and was baptized on January 9, 1890, taking the name Josephine Margaret Bakhita.  In 1893 she entered the Daughters of Charity of Canossa as a novice and made her profession in 1896.  In 1902 she was sent to the community in Schio, northeast of Verona and served there as cook, seamstress, sacristan and doorkeeper.  She was much loved by the children and local people of Schio and stayed there with them through two world wars.  She recorded the story of her life in her memoirs, which were published in 1930.   

She was asked at one time what she would do if she met her kidnappers.  She said “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands.  For if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today." 

Josephine spent her later years in a wheelchair, and died on February 8, 1947 in Schio, Veneto, Italy.  When asked if she was ready to go to heaven, she replied “I neither wish to go nor to stay.  God knows where to find me when He wants me.” 

In 1959, the process of beatification was begun.  She was beatified on May 17, 1992 and her relics were returned to Africa in 1993 by John Paul II during a pilgrimage there.  She was the first native of the Sudan to be canonized.   In 2000, at her canonization Mass, John Paul II said “The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance, but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence, and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.”

Josephine has been recommended as a patron saint, through the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, of victims and survivors of human trafficking and slavery. Today, in the Sudan and other parts of Africa, children are still kidnapped and sold into slavery.

 

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