Today, February 8th, the universal Church honors St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave who found freedom and love in the Catholic Church, being introduced to the holy, mighty and eternal Triune God.
Bakhita was born in the Sudan in 1869. Bakhita was not the name that she received from her parents when she was born; her captors gave her this name which means, “fortunate.” Indeed and in fact, she was terrorized by her captors as a slave and her experiences were so horrible, that she forgot her birth name. She bore the most terrible indignities, being sold and resold over and over again as a slave, experiencing severe physical abuse, as well as emotional, psychological and moral abuse.
Callisto Legnani, an Italian Consul, bought Bakhita whilst he was in the Capital city of Sudan. Callisto treated Bakhita with dignity, kindness and cordiality, unlike the whip used by her former slave captors. Now, Bakhita experienced joy, peace, warmth, dignity and goodness whilst she lived in the Consul’s home.
Political matters forced Callisto to leave for Italy, and Bakhita received permission to go with him and a friend of his, one Mr. Augusto Michieli. When they arrived in Genoa, Mr. Michieli’s wife persuaded Callisto to leave Bakhita with them, wherein they settled in Zianigo near Mirano Veneto. When Mrs. Michieli’s wife gave birth to a daughter, Bakhita became her babysitter and friend.
Mr. Michieli acquired a large hotel in Suakin on the Red Sea, therefore requiring Mrs. Michieli to help him with this large endeavor. Accordingly, on the advice of their administrator, Bakhita was entrusted with the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. It was there that Bakhita experienced our Lord, whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who He was” during her childhood years. Bakhita said, “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage. . .”
After a few months with the sisters, on January 9, 1890, Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian Initiation and received the new name, “Josephine.” She experienced complete love and joy and was seen on occasions kissing the Baptismal font saying, “Here, I became a daughter of God!”
When Mrs. Michieli came back to Italy from Africa to take Josephine back, Josephine expressed her desire to remain with the Sisters and to serve God there. Josephine was of the age that she could make her own choices under the laws of Italy which insured her freedom.
Josephine stayed with the Sisters for a time and then heard a call from Our Lord to become a sister; hence, she gave herself to Our Lord at the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa. On December 8, 1896, she joined that order being forever consecrated to God, whom she called her “Master.” Josephine lived there for 50 years in the community of Schio, cooking, sewing, doing embroidery work and attending to the door. Whilst she served her duty at the door, she laid her hands upon the school children who attended the Canossian schools daily, and she hugged and loved them. She had a beautiful voice and the little children loved her; she also comforted the poor and those who suffered who came to the door, giving them strength, support and encouragement.
Josephine was known for her sweetness of nature, her large smile and her great goodness; she lived as a Light for Jesus. She said, “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”
Josephine endured long, painful years of sickness as she became older, sometimes reliving her days as a slave. On one occasion, she asked the nurse who was caring for her, “Please, loosen the chains. . .they are heavy!” While suffering, she received visitors and they would ask her how she was; she would respond, “As the Master desires.”
Her last words were, “Our Lady! Our Lady!” She smiled and must have seen the beautiful Blessed Mother of God. She died on February 8, 1947, surrounded by the Sisters of the Canossian Convent.
The knowledge of her holiness spread all over the world, wherein the first steps to beatify her began in 1959, being beatified in 1992 and canonized eight years later.
Dear St. Josephine, you draw tears to my eyes since you endured so much indignity and suffering of every kind. Yet, you remained cheerful, with a big smile, loving, kind, sweet and noble. Help us to remember your pure and indomitable spirit, but most especially, your Love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is my hope that the Church Triumphant is having a big party for you in heaven today! We love you!
Sources: Saint of the Day, Edited by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.; Vatican website