08 February 2010

Saint Josephine Bakhita

8 FEBRUARY 2010. Today is the feast day (optional memorial) of Saint Josephine Bakhita, an African nun who endured the evil of slavery to offer herself to Christ in service to His Bride, the Church.

Saint Josephine was born in 1869 in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Her family was locally important, as her father was the brother of the local chief, but at the age of 12 Josephine was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. After her abduction, Saint Josephine was sold and resold five times in the slave markets of North Africa. The trauma of these years was so intense that the saint forgot her given name. The name we venerate her by today is a combination of the Christian name she took for herself as an adult--Josephine--and the name her captors gave her--Bakhita, which means "lucky" in Arabic.

Saint Josephine suffered great brutality at the hands of her slave owners. She was truly broken by the anger and evil of the world as Christ was broken in the trauma of His passion. One time, the son of her owner beat her so badly that she lay motionless in bed for nearly a month. However, Saint Josephine later recounted that her most terrifying moment came at the hands of her fourth owner, who had her marked as his property by extensive scarring. A razor was used to make deep cuts along lines that had been drawn on her skin, then the wounds were filled with salt and flour to ensure scarring. For the rest of her life, Saint Josephine carried the more than sixty patterns that were cut into her skin in this manner.

Saint Josephine's final owner was an Italian diplomat who brought her to live with him and serve as a nanny for his daughter in Italy. In 1888 or 1889, the Saint Josephine's Italian owner left her and his daughter in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice while he went abroad on business for an extended period. In 1890, Saint Josephine was baptized. When the man returned to collect Saint Josephine and his daughter, Saint Josephine protested leaving and the head of the school notified the authorities. After a legal battle, the Italian courts determined that Saint Josephine was a free woman, as Sudan had outlawed slavery before her birth and Italian law did not recognize slavery.

On 8 December 1896 Saint Josephine professed vows with the sisters and in 1902 she was sent by her order to a convent in Schio, in the northern Italian province of Vicenza. Except for a period of several years spent training sisters to minister in Africa (1935-1938), Saint Josephine spent the rest of her life in Schio. At her convent, Saint Josephine usually served as a doorkeeper, greeting the local community every day. She was known for her gentleness and ever present smile, and was referred to lovingly as a nostra madre moretta ("our little brown mother").

Saint Josephine's order recognized her charisma and reputation for sanctity and asked her to write her memoirs and give talks about her experiences, which she did. After her biography was published in 1930, Saint Josephine became a noted and sought-after speaking, using her gifts and experiences to raise money for her order and its causes.

In her last years, Saint Josephine suffered from pain and sickness. Her mind was driven back to her early days of captivity in her delirium, and she would cry to have someone remove her chains. However, her last words were: "Our Lady! Our Lady!" Saint Josephine died on 8 February 1947. After her death, Saint Josephine's body lay in repose for three days as thousands of the faithful paid their respects.

Calls for Saint Josephine's canonization began immediately after her death. The process of canonization was begun in 1959. And, on 1 October 2000, the great and Venerable Pope John Paul II canonized Saint Josephine Bakhita.

Saint Josephine is the patron saint of Sudan.


Heavenly Father,
Your Son Jesus Christ, through His suffering and
death on the cross, gave Himself
as a gift of love for the reconciliation and salvation of all peoples.
He continues to express this love
by giving us St. Josephine Bakhita.
She too offered herself through her suffering in slavery.
We humbly pray that through her intercession
You may save her brothers and sisters in Sudan
from slavery and persecution.
May she obtain for her people and for the whole world
the gift of justice and peace.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.


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