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)