Saint of the Day: St. Josephine Bahkita – February 8
St. Josephine Bahkita (1869-1947) was born in Olgossa in the province of Darfur, Sudan. She was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 7 and was sold 5 times in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. Her suffering and abuse were immense. Her fourth owner, an Ottoman army officer, had her and his other slaves tatooed and scarred to mark them as his property. Once the sons of her owner beat her so severely that she could not move from her straw pallet for a month. Her fifth buyer was the Italian consul ,who treated her more humanely, but nevertheless gave the 16 year old to one of his friends, who made her a nanny to his daughter. St. Josephine and the girl she cared for were sent to the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Venice while the parents returned to Africa.
Upon their return, St. Josephine refused to leave with them. In the ensuing court case, the Canossian Sisters and the Patriarch of Venice intervened on her behalf. The court upheld her freedom and she returned to the Canossian Sisters. She spent the rest of her life happily as the door keeper in the convent in Schio and was in frequent contact with the community. St. Josephine was known for her cheerfulness and holiness. In her later years, her order asked her to write her memoirs and to give talks about her life story. Efforts to declare her a saint began soon after her death in 1947 and she was canonized (declared a saint) in 2000.
As terrible as her story of slavery is, it might be more bearable if we could relegate it to the horrors of 19th century Africa. Unfortunately, turmoil in Darfur and human trafficking are even more prominent today. There might be some solace in St. Josephine’s designation as the patron saint of Sudan, except that genocide in Darfur is directed at Christians and animists by a hostile government in Sudan which is protected from international sanction by its commercial ties with China. The persecution of Christians has spread to other African countries in recent years as well.
St. Josephine is remarkable not only because she was able to survive such a cruel childhood and adolescence, but because she rose from it in a spirit full of happiness. Bitterness, depression, anxiety, even hostility, and self-destruction are the more likely outcomes of such an horrendous youth. Credit also has to go to the Canossian Sisters who could have turned a blind eye to the plight of an African and not opposed a prominent family. St. Josephine could have taken a certain morose refuge with the Sisters, but instead she became an unassuming beacon of holiness.
Image of St. Josephine Bahkita from the website of the Canossian Daughters of Charity.