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Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita

Updated on July 26, 2012
Josephine Bakhita, Canossian Daughter of Charity
Josephine Bakhita, Canossian Daughter of Charity

Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, the Black Mother

Saint Josephine Bakhita was not a member of the royalty like Saint Constantine, Blessed Charles the Great, or Blessed Charles I of Austria. She was not known for her brilliant theological insights like Saint Gregory Palamas. She was not an angel of God like Saint Raphael, and she was not an Old Testament Patriarch or Matriarch like Saints Adam and Eve. Yet despite all of this her story is, perhaps, the most amazing and inspiring of all of them.

The details of the early life of Saint Bakhita are hazy. It is known that she was born sometime around the year 1869 in Olgossa, a village located in the Sudanese region of Darfur. She had a large family with three brothers and two sisters, one of them her twin, and lived a very happy, carefree life.

This was not to last. When Saint Bakhita was very young one of her sisters was kidnapped by Arab slave raiders; Saint Bakhita never saw her again. At the time the slave trade was illegal in Sudan, but the practice continued essentially unchallenged by the government. Saint Bakhita’s once happy family was now shattered. And yet even this great tragedy was merely an omen for what was to come in her life.

When Saint Bakhita was about nine years old she had her next interaction with the slave raiders. In her own words:

I was approximately nine years old when I, one early morning, walked around the fields, a bit far away from home, with a companion. Suddenly, we saw two strangers appear from behind a fence. One of them told my companion: 'Let the small girl go into the forest for me to pick me some fruits. Meanwhile, you continue on your walk. We'll catch up with you soon'. His objective was to fool my friend so that she wouldn't give the alarm while they were capturing me.

I, of course, did not suspect anything and hurried to obey, which my mother had accustomed me to do. Once we were in the forest, I saw two persons behind me. One of them briskly grabbed me with one hand, while the other one pulled out a knife from his belt and held it to my side. He told me "If you cry, you'll die! Follow us!" with a lordly voice.

The Saint’s name had not originally been Bakhita, and in her life she never revealed what her original name was; it is widely believed that the incident traumatized her so much that she did not remember it. Bakhita was the name given to her by the slave raiders, who renamed all of their slaves. Her name means “fortunate one” in Arabic, a name that at first seemed to be a cruel irony inflicted on her by the slave raiders but eventually became a symbol of triumph over adversity later in life. She was also forcibly converted to Islam by her captors.

Saint Bakhita was forced to walk barefoot about 600 miles to the town of El Obeid; before she arrived she had already been bought and sold twice by other slave raiders. Once in El Obeid she was bought by a rich Arab merchant who employed her as a maid. She was initially treated well but at one point unintentionally offended one of her owner’s sons, who lashed and kicked her so severely she ended up bedridden for over a month. The Saint was sold several more times; she tried to escape on more than one occasion but never succeeded.

He fourth owners, in the city of Khartoum, were her worst by far. While she was there Saint Bakhita was tortured and humiliated on an almost a daily basis. At the age of 13 she suffered the worst of all of her horrors. She was forced to stand still while a woman drew patterns on her skin with flour. Once the patterns were drawn the woman took the razor and cut deeply into her skin along the lines drawn with the flour. While the skin was still broken salt was poured into the wounds in order to ensure scarring. When the torture was finished 114 patterns had been permanently cut into her breast, belly, and right arm.

In 1882 a rebellion started in Sudan by Mahdist revolutionaries, so named because their leader was a man named Muhammad Ahmed. This sparked Saint Bakhita’s owner to sell her a fifth and final time to an Italian named Callisto Legnani, a person Saint Bakhita described as “a very good man”. When the revolutionaries closed in on Khartoum Legnani agreed to take her and several other slaves with him as he fled back to Italy with his friend Augusto Michieli.

When Legnani and Michieli arrived in Italy Michieli’s wife saw the African slaves and immediately decided that she wanted one for herself. She was given Saint Bakhita. Saint Bakhita moved with the Michielis to Venice, where she worked as a nanny.

In 1888 the family bought a hotel in Sudan, and Mr. and Mrs. Michieli decided to go down and maintain the hotel. Since their house had been sold the Michielis left their daughter Mimmina and Saint Bakhita in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice, a group of Catholic religious Sisters known for education of poor girls, hospital work, and catechesis, or teaching the faith. Mrs. Michieli intended to come back and bring them to Sudan after the maintenance was finished.

In the meantime Saint Bakhita became a catechumenate, or baptismal candidate. When Mrs. Michieli returned from Sudan and told the girls to come back down with her she was astonished when Saint Bakhita, with a strength of character she had never shown before, refused to leave. For three days Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue but to no avail. Finally, the Superior Sister in charge of the Institute for Catechumenates, the Institute that Saint Bakhita took was attending, appealed to the Italian authorities. After almost a year of deliberation in the court system it was ruled that since Saint Bakhita was captured by slave raiders after Sudan made slavery technically illegal, and because Italian law did not recognize slavery, Saint Bakhita was no longer subject under any authority recognizing her as a slave. Since she had reached the age of maturity Saint Bakhita was finally, after all of her trials and sufferings, a free woman.

Saint Bakhita decided to remain with Cannosian sisters and on January 9, 1890, less than two years after she had first started living with the Sisters, Saint Bakhita was baptized, confirmed, and received her first communion from the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. She took the name Joseph Margaret Bakhita. Her name, at one time a cruel irony inflicted upon her by men who captured her and sold her for profit, was now a symbol of triumph in the face of tremendous adversity.

On December 7, 1893 Saint Bakhita became a Novice, or “Nun in Training”, for the Cannosian Sisters, and on December 8, 1896 she took her official vows and became a nun of the Order. She was welcomed into the Order by the future Pope Pius X, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice since June 15, 1893.

Saint Bakhita served the final fifty years of her life as a nun. In 1902 she was transferred from Venice to the Northern Italian town of Schio where she worked as a sewer, cook, and porter. Saint Bakhita also had a reputation for taking care of the poor. She soon became well known for being a devoutly holy person. The poor of the community loved her and called her Madre Moretta, or “black Mother”.

Despite her reputation she was not known for any miracles or supernatural experiences of any kind. Saint Bakhita was a modest, reserved woman who held her faith in close to her heart and performed the most routine day to day jobs. Nevertheless her special charisma and sanctity was noticed by her Order, who asked her to publish her autobiography. In 1931 the autobiography became public, making Saint Bakhita famous throughout Italy. She travelled around the country making speeches and collecting donations for the Order.

During the Second World War she calmed the townspeople with her very presence; the townspeople already considered her a Saint. Her prayers paid off when the town of Schio was bombed without suffering a single casualty. In her old age Saint Bakhita became marked with pain and disease; despite this she managed to travel around the country collecting donations and being a wonderful example of humble charity. In her pain she relived the experiences of her slave years, repeatedly asking her nurse, "Please loosen the chains ... they are so heavy!"

Saint Bakhita found her final release from the horrors of slavery through Mary, Mother of Mercy. Before she died her final words were, “Madonna, Madonna!” The day was February 8, 1947. She was seventy-eight years old.

Saint Bakhita was an incredible person for many reasons, but perhaps her greatest legacy was her remarkable example of forgiveness. A young student one asked her what she would do if she ever met her captors again. Saint Bakhita replied, “If I was to meet those slave raiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I'd kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.”

Saint Bakhita was an incredible person whose personal example of resilience, piety, humility, and forgiveness makes her an outstanding role model for those in the world today. Saint Bakhita also symbolized the broader struggle between Christianity and Islam, being a Muslim who publicly renounced her faith and was eventually canonized as a Catholic. In May of 1992 when Saint Bakhita was beatified news of her beatification was banned in Khartoum, where she served as a slave for several years. Only nine months later Blessed Pope John Paul II, at great personal risk to himself, visited Khartoum and informed the people of her beatification in person. She became a symbol of freedom to the people of her native land of Sudan. Sadly the situation of Christians in Sudan is grave even in this day.

On October 1, 2000 she became canonized by Blessed Pope John Paul II under the name Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI mentions Saint Bakhita in his encyclical Spe Salvi, referencing her life story as an outstanding example of Christian hope. Her Feast day is February 8, the day of her death. She is the first African Saint canonized since the early days of Christianity.

If you would Like to Contribute to Sudanese Relief Efforts, Please consider these Charities: Button at top of Page, Middle-Right Button in top Right Corner is a Small Link at the top of the Page Button at Second Link in the Left of the Page

Also consider looking at how to take action in other ways besides donating. Details are included in the websites.


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    • MarcAnthony profile image

      MarcAnthony 5 years ago

      I wanted a female Latin Catholic Saint to use this week, but it was very hard for me to find somebody who was more contemporary and who had an interesting story. This is why it took me so long to write this article.

      I narrowed it down to two choices (I won't say who because one day I may end up using one of them!), but I wasn't really satisfied with either one. Then I found Saint Bakhita.

      Her story blew me away. It was contemporary, it was relevant, it was inspiring, it was exciting...I knew as soon as I read about her that she had to be the one I wrote the article on.

      Indeed, hers was an inspiring story. Sometimes God allows horror because it means that we have women like her to hold up as an example for the rest of us. What an incredible woman.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Inspiring story. Incredible the horrors we humans visit on each other. But then I suppose with those horrors come those who overcome.