By CAROLE BRESLIN
There is a patron saint for almost any group of persons or causes. A patron saint is “a saint or blessed who, since early Christian times, has been chosen as a special intercessor with God for a particular person, place, community, or organization” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, p. 410). There are also some recently canonized saints who have been named as special patrons as well. St. Josephine Bakhita, canonized on October 1, 2000, by Pope St. John Paul II, is the patron saint of Sudan in Africa.
When the saint we know of as Josephine Margaret Bakhita was born, her parents gave her a name. However, because of the traumatic events of her life, that name has been lost. Josephine was born in Sudan in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War that ended slavery in the United States.
As she and the rest of her family were working the fields near their home, the entire family was kidnapped. This terrifying ordeal left her so frightened that she could not remember her name, so her captors called her Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.”
The trials of the next stage of her life would hardly qualify her to be called fortunate. Bakhita was sold five different times as a slave. She was beaten, abused, tortured, and put in chains by each successive owner. At times she thought she would die.
In one instance she recalled that she was cut more than 100 times. These open wounds were then rubbed with salt, causing excruciating pain and scarring. The owners did this not to disinfect the cuts, but to ensure that the marks they were making would last the rest of her life.
During this period, despite the pain and heartache, Bakhita remained hopeful. As she gazed at the night sky, or looked around on a sunny day, she would wonder, “Who could be the master of these beautiful things?”
Providentially, Bakhita was eventually sold to Calisto Legnani, the Italian consul, when he was in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. After two years Legnani returned to Italy, taking Bakhita with him. Upon arrival in Genoa, Legnani gave Bakhita to Augusto Michieli, who had left Sudan with them.
Bakhita remained with this family, never before experiencing such love, patience, and kindness. No more was she tortured, beaten, or chained. Rather she was treated with dignity.
From Genoa, the Michieli family moved to Zianigo, near Mirano, Veneto, on the northwest coast of the Adriatic Sea. The couple soon had a baby, Mimmina, whom they entrusted confidently to Bakhita’s care.
When the couple bought a hotel in Suakin on the Red Sea, they had to leave Italy to run it. Before they left, they took Mimmina and Bakhita to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of Catechumens in Venice.
The Canossian sisters taught both Mimmina and Bakhita. Here for the first time, Bakhita learned about God, His creation, and the redemptive suffering of Christ, so similar to what she had suffered. Bakhita yearned to learn more about this God, this master of all things beautiful.
She continued to study and pray, finding great joy in the home of the Canossian sisters. When the Michieli family returned to claim their daughter, Bakhita did not want to leave the convent. The conflict increased until a court ruled that slavery was illegal in Italy and that, as a woman of legal age, Bakhita could decide by herself where she would go.
The family left for Suakin without Bakhita. The sisters continued to teach Bakhita about Christ and His Church, baptizing her with the name Josephine Margaret on January 9, 1890. After her Baptism she remembered joyfully her day of initiation into the Catholic Church by kissing the baptismal font whenever she passed it, exclaiming, “Here, I became a daughter of God!”
In 1893, she entered the novitiate of the Canossians. After more prayer and discernment, Josephine made her final vows at the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa convent in Schio. She still remembered her younger days when she marveled about the master of the stars, moon, and nature, and called our Lord her Master.
She lived the remaining 50 years of her life in the Schio Canossian community, performing her duties with joy and serenity: cooking, sewing, embroidery, and serving the poor. When it was her turn to answer the door, she greeted all with a welcoming smile, gently caressing the heads of the little children.
The young ones who attended the school particularly loved Sr. Josephine Margaret with her voice of African inflections. Likewise, the elderly, the infirm, and the poor found her voice sweet and comforting.
Her Canossian sisters also found her engaging, asserting that she had a constantly sweet nature and innate goodness always striving to teach others about Jesus Christ. She frequently said, “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who know Him not. What a grace it is to know God!”
As Josephine grew older, her life was once again filled with great pain. She once again suffered but now with complete surrender to divine Providence. When she received visitors during her final years of illness, her visitors would ask her how she was doing. Her simple and humble response to them was, “As the Master desires.”
The suffering grew worse. In her mind, she had returned to days of her enslavement. She cried out to have the chains removed. In the end, the Blessed Virgin Mary visited her and relieved her suffering.
Before she died, she cried out, “Our Lady! Our Lady!” She died with a beatific smile on her face and with her sisters in Christ, the Canossian sisters.
Born in Africa, kidnapped and separated from her family which was also sold into slavery, tortured by different masters, and finally rescued by an Italian family, she found Christ. She found hope for the future. Josephine Bakhita has become a profound example of hope. After all of her suffering, she held no bitterness for her captors. Rather shewas thankful for her suffering, since it led her to Christ.
She died on February 8, 1947 in Schio at the convent. Soon the townspeople surrounded the convent when they learned Sr. Josephine had passed away. Many have sought her intercession around the world. Her feast day is celebrated on February 8.
Dear St. Josephine Margaret Bakhita, pray for us. You know so well the tragedy of human trafficking. You know that there are persons of all ages, all countries who are being captured, enslaved, and mistreated. Comfort them in their agony. Show us how we can free them from their enslavement as you were freed from yours. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)