SAINT OF THE DAY
Catholic saints are holy people and human people who lived extraordinary lives. Each saint the Church honors responded to God’s invitation to use his or her unique gifts. God calls each one of us to be a saint.
St. Josephine Bakhita
For many years, Josephine Bakhita was a slave but her spirit was always free and eventually that spirit prevailed.
Born in Olgossa in the Darfur region of southern Sudan, Josephine was kidnapped at the age of seven, sold into slavery and given the name Bakhita, which means fortunate. She was re-sold several times, finally in 1883 to Callisto Legnani, Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan.
Two years later he took Josephine to Italy and gave her to his friend Augusto Michieli. Bakhita became babysitter to Mimmina Michieli, whom she accompanied to Venice’s Institute of the Catechumens, run by the Canossian Sisters. While Mimmina was being instructed, Josephine felt drawn to the Catholic Church. She was baptized and confirmed in 1890, taking the name Josephine.
When the Michielis returned from Africa and wanted to take Mimmina and Josephine back with them, the future saint refused to go. During the ensuing court case, the Canossian sisters and the patriarch of Venice intervened on Josephine’s behalf. The judge concluded that since slavery was illegal in Italy, she had actually been free since 1885.
Josephine entered the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa in 1893 and made her profession three years later. In 1902, she was transferred to the city of Schio (northeast of Verona), where she assisted her religious community through cooking, sewing, embroidery and welcoming visitors at the door. She soon became well loved by the children attending the sisters’ school and the local citizens. She once said, “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”
The first steps toward her beatification began in 1959. She was beatified in 1992 and canonized eight years later.
Josephine’s body was mutilated by those who enslaved her, but they could not touch her inner spirit. Her Baptism set her on an eventual path toward asserting her civic freedom and then service to God’s people as a Canossian sister.
She who worked under many “masters” was finally happy to address God as “master” and carry out everything that she believed to be God’s will for her.
During his homily at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II said that 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.”
Bakhita: From Slave to Saint
Born in a village in Sudan, kidnapped by slavers, often beaten and abused, and later sold to Federico Marin, a Venetian merchant, Bakhita then came to Italy and became the nanny servant of Federico’s daughter, Aurora, who had lost her mother at birth. She is treated as an outcast by the peasants and the other servants due to her black skin and African background, but Bakhita is kind and generous to others. Bakhita gradually comes closer to God with the help of the kind village priest, and embraces the Catholic faith.
She requests to join the order of Canossian sisters, but Marin doesn’t want to give her up as his servant, treating her almost as his property. This leads to a moving court case that raised an uproar which impacts Bakhita’s freedom and ultimate decision to become a nun. Pope John Paul II declared her a saint in the year 2000. Directed by Giacamo Campiotti (St. Giuseppe Moscati, Doctor Zhivago) and stars Fatou Kine Boye, Stefania Rocca, Fabio Sartor, Ettore Bassi, and Francesco Salvi. Includes a 16 page collector’s booklet by Daria Sockey.
Saint Anthony Messenger Article:
By Lawrence S. Cunningham
She Thirsted for the Creator of All Beauty
Sense of Awe and Wonder
Break All Chains
Born to herders in the Darfur district of Sudan around 1871, Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slave raiders when she was barely seven years old. She was sold in the market of El Obeid, first to an Arab chieftain and later to a Turkish military officer who had her branded with 114 razor-cut scars.
She was resold to the Italian vice counsel, Luigi Legnani, who lived in Khartoum. The Legnani family returned to Italy in 1885. There Bakhita, whose name means “Fortunate One,” was given to Augusto Michaeli, a merchant with ties to Sudan.
She was enrolled in a Catholic school as companion to Michaeli’s daughter Alice in 1889. When the Michaeli family returned to Africa, Bakhita did not. An Italian judge’s interpretation of Sudan’s anti-slavery laws freed her.
Sense of Awe and Wonder
Even as a child, Bakhita evidently had an innate religious sense, nourished by her wonder at the beauty of the natural world: “Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? I felt a great desire to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage.” That innate sense of awe and her experiences in a Catholic school led her to the faith.
Bakhita was baptized and confirmed in Venice, taking the name Josephine Margaret in 1890. She then entered the novitiate of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She was admitted to first vows after a searching interview with the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, Joseph Sarto, who would later become Pius X.
In 1902 she was assigned to a Canossian convent near Padua, where the superior asked the young sister to write about her life in Africa, which she did in a 30-page memoir in Italian.
Sister Josephine Bakhita spent her vowed life as a doorkeeper at Canossian convents in Italy. Evidence put forth in the beatification process makes it clear that all who knew her held Sister Josephine in high esteem.
In 1935 she made a tour of Canossian convents telling her life story, despite her own reluctance and shyness. She was delighted to serve three years (1935-1938) in Milan where young sisters prepared for the African missions.
When she was in her 80s, she contracted pneumonia. Crying out to Our Lady in her final illness, she died on February 8. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, in St. Peter’s Square.
Break All Chains
One cannot ponder the life of this transparently good woman without remembering that children are still kidnapped and sold into slavery in Sudan and put into bonded labor or sexual slavery in other parts of the world.
When we honor Josephine Bakhita, we ought to do so not with any spirit of sentimentality but with a vigorous sense of outrage at those who rob children and adults of their dignity, their freedom and their physical and spiritual integrity. We honor Josephine Bakhita not as a humble nun (which she surely was) but as an emblematic figure who stands for all who are enslaved.
In Bakhita’s final days her nurse heard her cry out on more than one occasion: “Please loosen the chains… they are heavy.” In her sick delirium she must have recalled her childhood when she was yoked, with other slaves, with chains.
Those early days were never forgotten. Her words form a powerful prayer for all who are enslaved today.
Next month: St. Turibius of Mogrovejo (1538-1606)
At the time of Bakhita’s birth, Egypt and Great Britain were the political powers in Sudan. Islamic religious reformers (Mahdists) wanted control. In 1885, they captured Khartoum and killed English Governor General Charles Gordon, who had suppressed slavery, legally prohibiting it in 1875, shortly before Bakhita was kidnapped and enslaved. It was this uprising that led her Italian owners to return to Venice. Newly unified Italy’s continued quest for African colonies drew them back later.
The Canossian Daughters of Charity, founded in 1808 in Verona, Italy, are an international missionary institute, presently numbering 4,500 sisters.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 18 books, and is at work on another about St. Francis of Assisi.
Find Out More
For more information about saints whose feast days occur this month, go to http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/SaintofDay/