Saint Josephine Bakhita
The first African Saint
Feastday: February 8
Josephine Margaret Bakhita, F.D.C.C., (ca. 1869 – 8 February 1947) was a
Sudanese-born former slave who became a Canossian Religious Sister in Italy,
living and working there for 45 years. In 2000 she was declared a saint by the
She was born around the year 1869 in the western Sudanese region of Darfur; in
the village of Olgossa, west of Nyala and close to Mount Agilerei. She belonged
to the prestigious Daju people; her well respected and reasonably prosperous
father was brother of the village chief. She was surrounded by a loving family
of three brothers and three sisters; as she says in her autobiography: "I lived
a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering".
Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, she was
kidnapped by Arab slave traders, who already had kidnapped her elder sister two
years earlier. She was cruelly forced to walk barefoot about 960 kilometers (600
mi) to El Obeid and was already sold and bought twice before she arrived there.
Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three more
times and then given away. It is said that the trauma of her abduction caused
her to forget her own name; she took one given to her by the slavers, bakhita,
Arabic for lucky. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.
Life as a Slave
In El Obeid, Bakhita was bought by a very rich Arab from Arab slave traders who
used her as a maid in service to his two daughters. They liked her and treated
her well. But after offending one of her owner's sons, possibly for breaking a
vase, the son lashed and kicked her so severely that she spent more than a month
unable to move from her straw bed. Her fourth owner was a Turkish general and
she had to serve his mother-in-law and his wife who both were very cruel to all
their slaves. Bakhita says: "During all the years I stayed in that house, I do
not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. When a wound from the
whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me."
She says that the most terrifying of all her memories there was when she (in
common with other slaves) was marked by a process resembling both scarification
and tattooing, which was a traditional practice throughout Sudan. As her
mistress was watching her with a whip in her hand, a dish of white flour, a dish
of salt and a razor were brought by a woman. She used the flour to draw patterns
on her skin and then she cut deeply along the lines before filling the wounds
with salt to ensure permanent scarring. A total of 114 intricate patterns were
cut into her breasts, belly, and into her right arm.
By the end of 1882, El Obeid came under the threat of an attack of Mahdist
revolutionaries. The Turkish general began making preparations to return to his
homeland. He sold all his slaves but selected ten of them to be sold later, on
his way through Khartoum. There in 1883 Bakhita was bought by the Italian Vice
Consul Callisto Legnani, who didn’t use the lash when giving orders and treated
her in a loving and cordial way. Two years later, when Legnani himself had to
return to Italy, Bakhita begged to go with him. By the end of 1884 they escaped
from besieged Khartoum with a friend, Augusto Michieli. They traveled a risky
650-kilometer (400 mi) trip on camel back to Suakin, which then was the largest
port of Sudan. In March 1885 they left Suakin for Italy and arrived at the
Italian port of Genoa in April. They were met there by Augusto Michieli's wife
Signora Maria Turina Michieli. Callisto Legnani gave the enslavement of Bakhita
to Turina Michieli as a present. Bakhita's new masters took her to their family
villa at Zianigo, near Mirano Veneto, about 25 km (16 mi) west of Venice. She
lived there for three years and became nanny to the Michieli's daughter Alice,
known as Mimmina, born in February 1886. The Michielis brought Bakhita with them
to the Sudan for nine months before returning to Italy.
Conversion to Catholicism and freedom
Suakin in the Sudan was besieged but remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands. Augusto
Michieli acquired a large hotel there. He therefore decided to sell his entire
property in Italy and to move his family to the Sudan permanently. Selling his
house and lands took much longer than expected. By the end of 1888, Turina
wanted to see her husband in the Sudan even though land transactions were not
finished. Since the villa in Zianigo was already sold, Bakhita and Mimmina
needed a temporary place to stay while Turina went to the Sudan without them. At
the advice of their business agent Illuminato Cecchini, on 29 November 1888,
Signora Turina Michieli left them in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in
Venice. When she returned to take them both to Suakin, though, Bakhita firmly
refused to leave. For a full three days Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue.
So, the superior of the institute for baptismal candidates (Catechumenate) that
Bakhita attended complained to the Italian authorities. On 29 November 1889 an
Italian court ruled that, because the British had induced Sudan to outlaw
slavery before Bakhita's birth and because Italian law did not recognize slavery,
Bakhita had never legally been a slave. For the first time in her life Bakhita
found herself in control of her own destiny. She chose to remain with the
Canossians. On January 9, 1890 Bakhita was baptised with the names of Josephine
Margaret and Fortunata (which is the Latin translation for the Arabic Bakhita).
On the same day she was also confirmed and received Holy Communion from
Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, the future Pope
Pius X, himself.
On 7 December 1893 Josephine Bakhita entered the novitiate of the Canossian
Sisters and on 8 December 1896 she took her vows, welcomed by Cardinal Sarto. In
1902 she was assigned to the Canossian convent at Schio, in the northern Italian
province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life. Her only extended
time away was between 1935 and 1939, when she stayed at the Missionary Novitiate
in Vimercate (Milan); mostly visiting other Canossian communities in Italy,
talking about her experiences and helping to prepare young sisters for work in
Africa. A strong missionary drive animated her throughout her entire life - "her
mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa".
During her 42 years in Schio, Bakhita was employed as the cook, sacristan and
portress (door keeper) and was in frequent contact with the local community. Her
gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and
Vicenzans still refer to her as Sor Moretta ("little brown sister") or Madre
Moretta ("black mother"). Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were
noticed by her order; the first publication of her story (Storia Meravigliosa by
Ida Zanolini) in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy. During the Second World
War (1939–1945) she shared the fears and hopes of the town people, who
considered her a saint and felt protected by her mere presence. Not quite in
vain as the bombs did not spare Schio, but the war passed without one single
Her last years were marked by pain and sickness. She used a wheelchair, but she
retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, she would always smile and
answer: "As the Master desires." In the extremity of her last hours her mind was
driven back to the years of her slavery and she cried out: "The chains are too
tight, loosen them a little, please!" After a while she came round again.
Someone asked her: "How are you? Today is Saturday." "Yes, I am so happy: Our
Lady... Our Lady!" These were her last audible words.
Bakhita died at 8:10 PM on 8 February 1947. For three days her body lay on
display while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects.
Legacy and canonization
A young student once asked Bakhita: "What would you do, if you were to meet your
captors?" Without hesitation she responded: "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".
The petitions for her canonization began immediately, and the process officially
commenced by Pope John XXIII in 1959, only twelve years after her death. On 1
December 1978, Pope John Paul II declared Josephine Venerabilis, the first step
towards canonization. On 17 May 1992, she was declared Blessed and given
February 8 as her feast day. On 1 October 2000, she was canonized and became
Saint Josephine Bakhita. She is venerated as a modern African saint, and as a
statement against the brutal history of the European and American slave trade
and its Christian endorsement--as in her Italian owners who illegally kept her
enslaved and resisted her escape--as well as Africa's people sometimes
practicing slavery among themselves. She has been adopted as the only patron
saint of Sudan.
Sakhita's legacy is that transformation is possible through suffering. Her story
of deliverance from physical slavery also symbolizes all those who find meaning
and inspiration in her life for their own deliverance from spiritual slavery. In
May 1992 news of her beatification was banned by Khartoum which Pope John Paul
II then personally visited only nine months later. On 10 February 1993, he
solemnly honoured Bakhita on her own soil. "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."
Pope Benedict XVI, on 30 November 2007, in the beginning of his second
encyclical letter Spe Salvi (In Hope We Were Saved), relates her entire life
story as an outstanding example of the Christian hope.
Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of
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