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Opinion: Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of freedom

The Sudanese-Italian saint Josephine Bakhita never stepped foot in America, but remains a remarkable model of faith and perseverance for US Black Catholics.

February 8 marked the memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita.

I am always apprehensive to include “Bakhita” in her designation, knowing that it is not her real name. St. Josephine was beaten so badly by one slave master that she forgot hers. The name an Arab slave trader gave her in between owners was “Bakhita” (meaning “fortunate”). Knowing this was a slave name I was tempted to simply call her St. Josephine. I still do, for the most part.

I believe there is such power in her identity. So much power that she cleansed a name which was given in irony. Given because she was thought to be “fortunate” to now have a master. The Lord in his providence knew that her true fortune would be in Holy Mother Church—and thereafter, in Heaven.

Josephine was of the Daju people, a culturally diverse population in southern Sudan, along the border with Chad. The Daju were primarily Muslim. She was first sold into slavery at the age of seven, initially sold by Arab traders who forced her to convert to Islam. She would go on to be traded three more times.

In her most traumatic experience, Josephine’s perseverance draws such hope into the hearts of the faithful. Many of us have the patience to endure our lives being uprooted and placed in an unknown region of tribulation once, twice, and possibly a reluctant third time. Josephine however, continued on through almost endless trouble with a docility to the Holy Spirit. This openness to the will of God eventually prompted her to take hold of freedom.

Her fourth owner was a Turkish general in whose care she remarked “I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or another”. She endured her most traumatizing experience under this family, particularly the wife who drew patterns with flour on Josephine’s skin, then followed those patterns deeply with a razor. She placed salt on the deep cuts so as to bulk up as thick scars. She suffered a deep pain in this process of scarification and also in seeing the other enslaved people endure the same process.

Even when she had no knowledge of the Gospel, she was united deeply with Christ in His scourging at the pillar in this moment of her life. Over one hundred cuts in this one occasion, compiled over the lashings she endured most of her life. Her particular narrative associates faith with oppression, and her life at that point was a consistent reliving of the second sorrowful mystery.

This physical suffering, and the attacks against her human dignity, tend to draw our focus away from the ideological trauma she was to suffer. Nonetheless, Christ would continue to pursue her, and hope dawned during her time under her fifth owner, an Italian consular named Callisto Legnani.

She did housework for him and relayed her experiences in this home to be far less brutal than the previous, having suffered no harm under him. After two years in service to the consular, he was to leave Khartoum and go back to Italy. She begged Callisto to bring her with him. It was difficult to secure passage for Josephine out of Khartoum, but eventually they both left safely.

They traveled a long passage on camelback until they arrived at a port in Sudan called Suakin. From there they traveled to a port in Italy called Genoa, where she was traded again to the Michieli family. The wife, Signora, had arranged to meet her husband Augusto back in Sudan. In the meantime, Josephine needed somewhere to stay. The family was selling their property, so Josephine could not stay behind in the home. Signora decided to leave Josephine and another servant, Mimmina, in the care of the Canossian Sisters.

This was Josephine’s first encounter with the risen Christ and His Church. She greatly enjoyed her time with her sisters and was instructed lovingly in the faith. She remarked that the sisters “introduced me to a God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was”.

When Mrs. Michieli returned from Sudan, Josephine refused to leave the convent. Mrs. Michieli tried to convince Josephine for three days before appealing to Italy’s attorney general. However, Josephine was born after the British outlawed slavery in Sudan, thus there was no legal pretense for her to remain enslaved—especially since Italy did not recognize slavery. Now in a state of autonomy over her life’s path, Josephine chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters.

On January 9, 1890 she was baptized Josephine Margaret Fortunata and received Holy Communion from the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, who would later become Pope Pius X.

Although she spent all of her time as a sister in Italy visiting other sisters and being a sacristan, portress, and cook, she prayed constantly for her homeland. It was said of Josephine that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa”. She was known inside and outside of the convent as Madre Moretta (“Black Mother”) for her gentleness, warmth, and constant smile.

During World War II she was in Schio, Italy. She was a refuge for the troubled townspeople. Schio was bombed but suffered no casualties, a miracle many attribute to the mere presence of the walking saint Josephine.

In her final years, her signature smile never left her face even though her health was declining and she needed a wheelchair. Memories from her traumas in slavery would arise on her deathbed. When she snapped out of them, a sister reminded her that it was Saturday, Josephine’s favorite day. Her last words were “Yes, I am so happy! Our Lady, Our Lady!”

The story of Josephine’s humble cooperation with God’s providence even amidst trials, torture and injustice is summed up in the response she gave to a student who asked “What would you do if you were to meet your captors?”

Josephine answered: “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.”

Oh, how we resist God’s will by resisting the crosses He sends us! May we imitate St. Josephine in this uncanny humility.

Under the patronage of St. Josephine Bakhita, may we pray for the restoration and freedom of all the victims of human trafficking, domestic violence and those whose social identity is distorted by a legacy of slavery.

Also invoking Our Lady Help of Christians, we pray for the Christians in Sudan that they may be free of persecution as they seek union with Christ.

Isaiah Brickus is a graduate in public policy and African American studies from the University of Maryland at College Park, a Lay Dominican, FOCUS missionary at Temple University, and prison ministry volunteer.