Slave and saint – St Josephine Bakhita 8 February

Josephine Bakhita was born around 1869 in the Sudanese region of Darfur but at about 8, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. She was forced to walk barefoot for 600 miles, during which she was bought and sold twice. She was forcibly converted to Islam, and the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name. Next she was bought by a rich Arab as a maid for his daughters, but his son attacked her, and her fourth owner was a Turkish general, whose mother-in-law and wife both were extremely cruel. A total of 114 scars were cut into her body.

Now she was sold to the Italian Vice Consul who treated her in a much better way, so when he returned to Italy, she begged to go with him. When they arrived, he gave her to Turina Michieli, wife of a friend, as a present, and she became a nanny. When the Michielis decided to move back to the Sudan, she was left in the temporary care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice, but when she was called for Bakhita refused to leave. A court ruled her slavery illegal, and for the first time Bakhita found herself free and in control of her own life.

She chose to remain with the sisters, and in January 1890 she was baptised. Soon she entered the novitiate and in 1896 took her vows. In 1902 she was assigned to the convent at Schio near Vicenza, where she spent most of the rest of her life. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known. Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order and the first publication of her story in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy. When she died in 1947 thousands of people came to pay their respects.

In 2000 she was canonized as Saint Josephine Bakhita. She is venerated as a modern African saint, patron saint of Sudan, and a statement against the brutal history of the Arab, European, and American slave trade and its Christian endorsement, as well as Africa’s own practice of slavery. In May 1992 in Khartoum Pope St John Paul declared: ’Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free. Free with the freedom of the saints.’

Fr Matthew