The girl was walking in the fields some ways off from her home, when two strangers appeared and asked her to pick them some fruit. Brought up to show courtesy to adults, the nine-year-old hurried to obey. Not until she was in the forest did she realize it was a trick.
“I saw two persons behind me,” she later recalled. “One of them briskly grabbed me with one hand, while the other one pulled out a knife from his belt and held it to my side. He told me, ‘If you cry, you’ll die! Follow us!’ with a lordly voice.”
After a forced march, the girl was sold as a slave. “Bakhita,” her captors called her—Arabic for “Lucky One.”
Though the title was intended sarcastically, it came to express the girl’s own outlook on her life. In later years, she gladly accepted the name and wished for an opportunity to forgive her captors. Even more remarkably, she thanked God for the good that had come from her suffering. “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me,” she wrote, “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.”
Into Darkness. Born near Darfur, in modern Sudan, around 1869, the saint we know as Josephine Bakhita belonged to a close-knit family of eight living children, including a twin sister. Although they were animists who worshipped divine spirits in natural objects, even as a young child, Bakhita hungered to know God. “When I contemplated the moon, the stars, and all the beautiful things of nature, I was wondering, ‘Who is the master of it all?’ And I felt a keen desire to see him, to know him, and to pay him homage.”
The first shadow fell when her eldest sister was captured by slave traders while most of the family was out in the fields. Although Africans were no longer being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean at this time, there was still a profitable slave trade on the continent. African or Arab raiders would seize vulnerable people and sell them to rich Arabs or to rulers from another tribe. Bakhita’s father and his workers searched the countryside for the kidnapped girl—”but all in vain. My sister was gone forever.”
Her own turn came soon afterward, while she and a friend were out picking herbs. Armed strangers separated the two and carried off Bakhita. She spent a month in “a hole of a room, littered with tools and scraps,” weeping inconsolably for her family. Then she found herself on the block in the first of five slave markets. Her successive owners included a brutal Turkish general and an Italian who was kindly but expressed no qualms about participating in this traffic in human beings.
Although she and another girl managed to flee once, climbing a tree to escape a lion, they were soon discovered and sold again. Bakhita later described some of the cruelty she suffered: “There was not even one day when I was not dealt some punishment or other. When a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me, even though I had done nothing to deserve them.”
Once she was whipped for overhearing a quarrel between her master and his wife—wounded so severely that “I had to lie on the straw mat for two months without being able to move.” According to the fashion of the time and place, her arms, breasts, and stomach were tattooed with 114 elaborate designs incised with a razor, then kept open by being rubbed with salt. However, she was never raped. “Our Lady protected me, even before I could know her.”
Despite this misery, Bakhita said she “never despaired. I felt a mysterious strength within me that sustained me.” She refrained from theft and trickery, as well as bitterness.
“Thank You, My God!” When she was about fourteen, Bakhita was sold in Khartoum to Callisto Legnani, agent of the Italian consul. For the first time, a master treated her kindly. He even helped in a fruitless search for her own family. When he left for Italy two years later, Bakhita begged to go with him.
Sailing on the same ship to Genoa was Legnani’s good friend, Augusto Michieli. The consul gave Bakhita to Michieli’s wife, Maria, to help with the baby she was expecting. That daughter, Mimmina, grew very fond of Bakhita, and the feeling was mutual.
The Michieli family wasn’t particularly religious, but it was there that Bakhita was exposed to Christianity. One of their employees gave her a crucifix which mysteriously drew her heart. Her chance to learn more came a few years later, when Augusto and Maria returned to Sudan; they left Mimmina—with Bakhita as her nursemaid— in a Venice boarding school run by the Canossian Daughters of Charity.
“And so, the saintly sisters, with a patience that was truly heroic, instructed me in the faith,” wrote Bakhita. As she prepared for baptism, she realized that she had experienced God “in my heart since childhood, without knowing who he was . . . . Now, at last, I knew him. Thank you, my God, thank you!”
Nine months later, Signora Michieli returned to take Mimmina and Bakhita back to Africa. In an uncharacteristic show of defiance, Bakhita refused: “My instruction for baptism was not yet complete.” Incensed, Maria pleaded, threatened, and finally appealed to the law. She learned, however, that since slavery had long been illegal in Italy, Bakhita was free to make her own decision. Painfully, Bakhita parted from the family she had grown to love.
She was received into the church just over a month later, on January 9, 1890. “With a joy that only the angels could describe,” she was baptized Josephine Margaret Bakhita, confirmed, and received her first Communion. Unable to express in words what this new birth meant to her, she was often observed in the following days kissing the baptismal font.
Praising God’s Providence. She remained to study, pray, and serve the household of the Canossian Sisters, who were all Italian by birth. After several years, she nervously asked if “a poor African girl” might join the religious order. This she did, in 1893: “I could hear, more and more clearly, the gentle voice of the Lord, urging me to consecrate my life to him.”
Overwhelmed that God had chosen her, Sr. Josephine served him as a nun for more than fifty years, mostly in Venice, Milan, and Schio, a town in the Italian Alps. Her tasks were lowly: cooking, cleaning, teaching embroidery, and serving as doorkeeper. Though slow of movement—perhaps on account of the torture she had suffered as a teenager—she did every job lovingly, with a contagious joy. To those who had more visible roles, she would say, “You go and teach. I will go to the chapel and pray that you may do it well.”
All who passed through her gate came to confide in this kind woman. Among them were mothers and kindergarten students on their way to the school run by the sisters. Josephine would lay her hand on their heads, conveying her affection and blessing.
This life of loving service in Schio continued uninterrupted through two world wars. When air-raid sirens sent others scurrying for cover, Sr. Josephine kept on with her cooking or sweeping. “Let them fire away,” she said. “It is the Master who is in command.” Many villagers credited the fact that their town escaped serious damage to the prayers of “nostra Madre Moretta”—”our Black Mother.”
At the urging of her superiors, Josephine wrote her autobiography and made a speaking tour of Italy to tell her story and raise money for mission work. Her words were few, and she was always eager to hand the podium over to more eloquent speakers. She invariably began, “For God’s glory, and in praise of his providence that brought me to salvation.”
She prayed fervently for the conversion of her family, even though she was never able to locate them. As convent doorkeeper, she encouraged parents to let prospective novices follow God’s call to become missionaries. Some, she hoped, might go to the African homeland that always remained in her thoughts and prayers.
No Fear. Bakhita’s journey to true freedom left her with a profound consciousness of being in her Lord’s hands. Asked if she wished to go to heaven, she replied, “I neither wish to go nor to stay. God knows where to find me when he wants me!”
She talked about carrying two bags on her journey towards eternity. “One contains my sins. The other, much heavier, contains the infinite merits of Jesus Christ.” She described how she would cover her ugly bag with Our Lady’s merits, and open the other at her moment of judgment. “I am sure I will not be rejected. Then I will turn to St. Peter and say, ‘You can close the door after me—I am here to stay.’”
In her mid-seventies, when arthritis and bouts of pneumonia made Josephine dependent on a walking stick and then a wheelchair, she remained grateful. “I thank God for the many graces granted me, happy to have something to offer in return.” She had never imposed rigorous penances on herself, but she willingly accepted “the suffering caused by illness.” In the last days of her life, pain and high fever caused her to relive her tortures as a slave. In her delirium, she begged, “The chains are too tight. Loosen them a little, please!”
Sr. Josephine died in the Schio convent on February 8, 1947. As townspeople filed by her bier, mothers laid her hand on their children’s heads for the last time; some remarked that it remained flexible even in death.
The Master of Life. Tragically, there are more slaves in the world today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In modern Sudan, Josephine’s birthplace, a conservative estimate places the number of slaves at over twenty-five thousand. But throughout the world—including the United States and European nations—millions of men, women, and children are being bought and sold, held captive and brutalized for profit.
Pope John Paul II alluded to this dark reality when he canonized St. Josephine Bakhita in 2000. Her life, he said, “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.”
St. Josephine—a woman transformed by Christ’s love and forgiveness—is also a messenger of reconciliation, he said, and a “shining advocate of genuine emancipation.” Through her suffering, “she came to understand the profound truth that God, and not man, is the true Master of every human being, of every human life.” In our own way, we must each make the same discovery.
Jill A. Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana, and writes occasionally for The Word Among Us magazine.