St. Josephine was born in an affluent family in Sudan. Her uncle was the village chief. She had three brothers and three sisters. She enjoyed a very happy and carefree early-life.
Her life took a dramatic turn when she was abducted by Arab slave traders and sold several times, over the course on the next twelve years. It is said that the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name. Therefore, she took one given to her by the slave traders, Bakhita which meant lucky in Arabic. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.
During the course of her slavery, she was subjected to physical torture by her masters. The most terrifying of all was when, under the supervision of her mistress, patterns were drawn on her skin and then she was cut deeply along the lines & the wounds were filled with salt to ensure permanent scarring. A total of 114 intricate patterns were cut into her breasts, belly, and into her right arm.
Later she was bought by the Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani, who was kind to her. For the first time since her captivity she was able to enjoy some peace and tranquility. He gave her as a present to Signora Maria Turina Michieli, and her new masters took her to their family villa in Italy. She lived there for three years and became a nanny to their daughter Alice.
Signora Michieli left them in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice during her visit to Suakin. But when she returned to take them both to Suakin, St. Josephine firmly refused to leave. An Italian court ruled in favor of her. Thereby, she was able to choose to remain with the Canossians.
On 9 January 1890 she was baptized with the names of Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (Latin translation for Bakhita). On the same day she was also confirmed and received Holy Communion from Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto (future Pope Pius X). On 7 December 1893 she entered the novitiate of the Canossian Sisters and on 8 December 1896 she took her vows. In 1902 she was assigned to the Canossian convent at Schio, in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life.
A young student once asked her: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she responded:
“If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today”.
During her 42 years in Schio, she was employed as the cook, sacristan and door keeper and was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and perpetual smile became well known. Vicenzans still refer to her as “little brown sister” or “black mother“. Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order; the first publication of her story (Storia Meravigliosa by Ida Zanolini) in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy.
Her last years were marked by pain and sickness. She used a wheelchair, but she retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, she would always smile and answer “as the Master desires“. She died on 8 February 1947.
She is venerated as a modern African saint, and as a statement against the brutal history of slavery. She has been adopted as the only patron saint of Sudan and is an outstanding example of Christian hope.
While my natural inclination would be to resort to self-pity and grumbling (why me?!), I am inspired by her cheerfulness in the face of so much physical and mental suffering. I am also challenged to lay down my pride and accept the task (however trivial) put before me in humility. I also feel inspired to truly forgive those who have hurt me, and to see those hurtful occasions as times when the Lord was molding me into what I am today.
St. Joesphine’s legacy is that, transformation is possible through suffering. Her story of deliverance from physical slavery is an inspiration to those who seek deliverance from spiritual slavery.
Emulating her life, we should begin to ask the Lord for the gifts of humility, voluntary self-denial and acceptance of whatever suffering is necessary to be faithful to God’s will. May our prayer be
“Lord give me the grace to love those who hurt me”.