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By Lawrence S. Cunningham

She Thirsted for the Creator of All



Sense of Awe and Wonder
Break All Chains
Historical Background


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)


Historical Background

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.

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