St. Josephine Bakhita – Virgin & Religious
Feast Day: 8 February
Born: 1869 (date unrecorded and unknown) in Sudan, Africa
Fully Initiated in the Church: 9 January 1890
Died: 8 February 1947 at the age of 78 in Schio, Italy
Canonized 1 October 2000
One Sunday afternoon while still in the seminary, I decided to take in an experience I had never had before. At 3pm there would be a Mass at a nearby parish for the formal inauguration of an African and Caribbean Catholic community in the city. The Bishop was coming and the celebration promised to be “lively.” I arrived at 2:50pm to find a nearly empty church except for a few organizers setting up the hall. At 3:00pm people started to trickle in, and at 3:30 the narthex was full of many people with loud, cheerful voices and the most colorful garments and headpieces I had ever seen. Around 4pm, everyone had finally made their way into the church and the Holy Mass began with enthusiastic singing.
As I observed these people who, albeit, were slightly more active than I am comfortable with, I saw people who knew what it meant to enter deeply into reverential prayer. The Eucharist was clearly medicinal for them and they approached our blessed Lord with fervent devotion. They brought to Him their pains and concerns; it was evident in their faces. I later learned that most of them were refugees in this country who had fled their homelands because of ethnic or religious persecution. Most were unemployed and poor; some were highly trained professionals yet still unemployed. They had plenty to worry about, but not then, because for those hours (notice the plural) on a Sunday afternoon, they were strengthened and renewed in hope.
The highlight for me was the deafening and frightening shrieks and customary calls which were let out by many of the women when, at the end of Mass, the Bishop informed them under whose patronage he was placing their community: St. Josephine Bakhita. Like many of you, she was a woman who endured much suffering, but with firm trust in the Lord, she always persevered in hope and joy.
THE “LUCKY ONE”
When finally in a place of comfort and security, St. Josephine would not even be able to recall the name she was given by her parents at birth, such was the trauma she had suffered. From the age of nine, when she was forcibly kidnapped and taken from her family by slave traders, she would only ever go by “Bakhita,” which was an Arabic word meaning fortunate or more informally, lucky one. This title was certainly given sarcastically, as one could hardly imagine anything lucky about being kidnapped and sold as a slave at 9 years old. But Bakhita never considered herself anything less than fortunate.
She was sold in the markets of El-Obeid and eventually Khartoum, where she would be imprisoned in between sales and subjected to the most indescribable conditions and physical beatings. Some of her owners were more violent than others. Some neglected to provide her with basic necessities such as adequate food or lodging, while others would whip or pierce her, sometimes merely for pleasure. She was eventually purchased by an Italian consul in Sudan who would bring her back with him to Italy. She realized this was possibly the defining moment that would keep her from seeing her parents and seven siblings, including a twin sister, ever again. But no one had ever treated her with as much kindness as Mr. Legnani, and staying with him was a much better alternative to returning to the market.
Upon arriving in Italy, the consul loaned his slave to a friend, Agosto Michieli, whose wife was expecting a baby. When their daughter Mimmina was born, Bakhita was allowed to stay with the family and assist in the child’s care. She quickly grew attached to their family, and it did not take long for Mimmina to grow attached to Bakhita. However, business was going to force Agosto and his wife Maria to travel abroad and they did not want to bring Mimmina with them. They therefore arranged that Bakhita would stay behind as Mimmina’s nursemaid, and they would leave them both in the care of the Canossian Sisters’ convent. It was here that Bakhita would encounter her One, True Love.
After only having been away for nine months, Maria Michieli returned to Italy to collect her daughter and Bakhita and bring them to their new establishment. However, Bakhita had grown so fond of the “saintly and patient sisters” that she could not bear to leave them. Despite truly loving the Michielis and having never disobeyed them, she refused to leave the convent. Maria attempted legal measures to force Bakhita to follow them, but as slavery was supposedly illegal anyhow, she had no recourse. Painfully, Bakhita separated herself from the family she had certainly grown to love.
It was in that holy house of religious life that Bakhita truly got to know God. It was He whom “… she had experienced in her heart without knowing who he was” since she was a child. “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…”.1
She spent several months receiving religious instruction as a catechumen. Then on 9 January 1890, at the age of 21, Bakhita was fully initiated into the Catholic Church through Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. She took as her Christian name Giuseppina Margarita – “Josephine Margaret.” She was so moved at having become a daughter of God that she was found for quite some time afterwards kissing the baptismal font.
Her religious instruction continued and she took up more education and work around the convent. It soon became clear to her that she was called to consecrate her entire life to God, her true Master, and Jesus, her Lord. On 8 December 1896, under the watchful gaze of her Immaculate Mother, Sister Josephine professed her religious vows, formally entering the Institute of St. Magdalena di Canossa.
Sister Josephine spent the next 50 years faithfully carrying out her consecrated life of service and prayer. She was never entrusted with much more than responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and attending the door of their convent, but she did these tasks with love and joy. The Canossian sisters were primarily involved in childcare and education. While Sister Josephine never set foot in the classroom to teach, not one of those children would enter the school without passing by her loving embrace and words of encouragement. Every child would grow to love her and find in her another mother in whom they could confide. She was transferred between convents in Venice and Milan, and was eventually left in the Alpine town of Schio where she would become a permanent fixture. Every resident there fell in love with her kindness and the boisterous, accented voice with which she made the Italian language sound more musical than it already is. She was known to all as Nostra Madre Moretta – “Our Black Mother.”
There was even a time when, under obedience to her superiors, she traveled throughout Italy with several other sisters as part of their Institute’s efforts to raise funds. At each of their stops, she reluctantly told her story of how God had worked in her life. Before ever saying a word at any podium, Bakhita always began, “For God’s glory, and in praise of his providence that brought me to salvation…”
Her entire life was one instance after another of hope put into action. In his 2007 Encyclical Spe Salvi on the virtue of hope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI devoted considerable length to recounting Bakhita’s story. In commenting specifically on her missionary speaking tours, the Holy Father observed, “… 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.”2
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
In old age, la Madre Moretta suffered terribly. In all likelihood, the intense torments to which she was subjected in adolescence took a toll on her later in life. She moved slower and slower and would eventually end up bedridden. Between bouts of pneumonia she would also experience high fevers that caused her to hallucinate. She would sometimes be forced to relive the days of her captivity and would beg the sisters to “loosen the chains because they are so heavy.” Mother Bakhita died on Saturday, 8 February 1947. One sister came to check on her moments before and asked, “How are you, sister? It’s Saturday you know,” to which Bakhita replied, “Ah yes, Saturday. O, Our Lady, Our Lady!” And with a smile spreading across her face, she took her last breath.
Thousands lined up outside of the convent of Schio in order to pass by her bier and pay their last respects. Many mothers brought their children to see their “Black Mother,” and they would place Bakhita’s soft hand upon their children’s heads.
On 17 May 1992, Josephine Margaret Bakhita was beatified alongside the revered Spanish priest, Josemaría Escrivá, and she was canonized on 1 October 2000. During his canonization homily, Pope John Paul II held up St. Josephine as an example to all the world of the fruitfulness that can be borne through perseverance in suffering. He also recommended her intercession for the contemporary scourge of human trafficking. “In today’s world, countless women continue to be victimized, even in developed modern societies. In St. Josephine Bakhita we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. 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.”3
St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!
– Fr. Cristino Bouvette
1 “St. Josephine Bakhita,” Catholic Online; available from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=5601; Internet; accessed 16 January 2014.
2 Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #3.
3 Pope John Paul II, Canonization Homily, #5; available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20001001_canonization_en.html; Internet; accessed 16 January 2014.
*Quotes of St. Josephine’s and further biographical details can be found at: