Learn more about Josephine Bakhita
Bakhita was born to a locally important family in Olgossa, a village in the southern Sudanese district of Darfur in Africa. Her father was the brother of the village chief. At the age of six or seven she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and over the course of the next eight years was sold and resold five times in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name, and the name we know her by is a compound of the name given her by the slavers (bakhita, the Arabic word for lucky) and the Christian name she took in adulthood.
Bakhita suffered much brutality during her captivity. On one occasion, one of her owner's sons beat her so severely that she spent a month unable to move from a straw bed. She later recalled that her most terrifying memory was of her fourth owner, a Turkish army officer, having her (in common with all his other slaves) marked as 'his' by a process that resembled both scarification and tattooing. Her memoirs, written in Italian many years later, recall that a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a blade were brought by a woman, who drew patterns on her skin and then cut deeply along the lines before filling the wounds with salt and flour to ensure permanent scarring. More than sixty patterns were cut into her breasts, belly, and arms.
Her final purchaser was an Italian consul, Callisto Legnani, who treated her with kindness and apparently planned to free her, although in 1885 he instead gave the sixteen-year-old Bakhita to his friend Augusto Michieli, and she was taken to Italy and became nanny to the latter's daughter Mimmina. In 1888 or 1889 Bakhita and Mimmina were left in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice while the Michielis moved to the Red Sea on business. In 1890 she was baptised at her own instigation, and took the Christian name Giuseppina Margarita (Josephine Margaret). When the Michielis returned to collect her and their daughter, Bakhita did not want to leave. Mrs Michieli tried to force the issue, but the superior of the school that Bakhita and Mimmina had attended in Venice complained to the authorities. An Italian court ruled that since the Sudan had outlawed slavery before Bakhita's birth, and since in any case Italian law did not recognise slavery, Bakhita had never in fact been a slave. Bakhita had now reached the age of majority, and she found herself in control of her own destiny for the first time in her life. She chose to remain with the Canossians.
In 1896 she joined the sisters permanently, and in 1902 she was assigned to a house in Schio in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life. Her only extended time away from Schio was between 1935 and 1938, a period she spent in Milan helping prepare young sisters for work in Africa.
During her forty-five years in Schio Giuseppina was usually employed as portress (door keeper) of her house, and so was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as la nostra madre moretta ("our little brown mother"). Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order, and she was instructed to publish her memoirs and to give talks about her experiences; these made her famous throughout Italy. Her last years were marked by pain and sickness, but she retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, would always smile and answer "as the master desires". In the extremity of her last days her mind was driven back to the years of her slavery and in her delirium she would cry out "Please, loosen the chains... they are so heavy".
Giuseppina died on the 8th February 1947. For three days her body lay on display while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects. The calls for her canonization began immediately, and the process began in 1959, only twelve years after her death. On the 1st December 1978 Pope John Paul II declared Giuseppina Venerabilis, the first step towards canonization. On the 17th May 1992 she was declared Blessed and given the 8th February as her feast; and on the 1st October 2000 she was canonized and became Saint Josephine Bakhita. She is venerated as a modern African saint, and as a saint with a special relevance to slavery and oppression. She has been adopted as the patron saint of the Sudan.
- Biography from the Vatican website: English French Italian Portuguese
- A short biography from catholic-forum.com, followed by several quotes by and about Guiseppina
- A longer biography from afrol.com
- A painting from the Vatican website
|Stages of Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church|
|Servant of God → Venerable → Blessed → Saint|