Saint Josephine Bakhita was born to a wealthy family in Sudan in 1869. She could not recall the name given to her at birth by her parents after she suffered repeated terrible humiliation, both physical and moral, as a result of being kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 7 and sold and re-sold in the slave markets of El Obeid and of Khartoum. The kidnappers gave her the name of Bakhita, which means “the lucky one” – a terrible irony, at least at that point in her life. In the capital of Sudan, she was eventually bought by an Italian consul and unlike her previous experiences, was not lashed, but treated cordially during her time in his household. When political situations took the consul and his friend, a Mr. Augusto Michieli, back to Italy, Bakhita was brought too. Once in Italy, she stayed with Mr. Michieli and his wife, becoming both babysitter and friend to their new daughter, Mimmina.
When business required the Michielis to leave for Suakin, on the Red Sea, Mimmina and Bakhita were entrusted to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. Here Bakhita came to learn about God, whom she’d “had experienced in her heart without knowing who He was” since she was a young child. After several months, at the age of 21, Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian initiation and took the name Josephine. After this, she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and crying out “Here, I became a daughter of God!” When Mrs. Michieli returned for Mimmina, Josephine Bakhita chose to stay with the sisters. She eventually joined the Institute of Saint Magdalene of Canossa and was consecrated forever to God on December 8th, 1896.
For the next 50 years, Josephine lived in the community of Schio as a Daughter of Charity, engaging in cooking, sewing, embroidery and attending to the poor. Her gentle ways, humility, and constant smile were comforting to the poor who came to the Institute and she won the hearts of all the community citizens. In later years, as Josephine endured painful illness, she continued to witness to her Catholic faith and always smiled when asked how she was, replying “As the Master desires.” In her final days, she relived the agony of her time in slavery, begging the nurse who attended her to “loosen her chains.” She was freed finally from her suffering by Mary Most Holy, and smiled as she uttered her last words, “Our Lady! Our Lady!” Josephine Bakhita died February 8th, 1947 surrounded by the sisters of her community.
During his homily at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II said that in St. Josephine Bakhita, “We find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. The history of her life 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.”