As a regular listener to the Colson Center’s Breakpoint I frequently learn about historical figures who’ve made a significant impact on society. One such individual is Josephine Bakhita. I’ve reprinted her story below in the event that if you too were unfamiliar with her life and work, you might be as encouraged learning about her as I was.
Josephine Margareet Bakhita
From Slave to Servant of Christ
February 8, 2023
ByJohn Stonestreet and Glenn Sunshine
Josephine Bakhita died on this day in 1947. She was a remarkable believer who reveled in the love of God and lived her life in service to Him, despite the years she suffered in abusive slavery. Born around the year 1869 in the troubled region of Darfur in Sudan, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders while still a child, in about 1877. This began a horrific 12-year ordeal as a slave.
Not only did her captors forcibly convert her to Islam, but they also forcibly marched her 600 miles to the city of El Obeid. She was so traumatized by the kidnapping; she forgot her name. Bakhita was, in fact, a name given to her by her slavers. It means “lucky.”
During the march, Bakhita was bought and sold twice. Afterward, she was sold a third time to a wealthy Arab merchant who assigned her as a maid to his two daughters. For the most part, they liked her and treated her well, though at one point, when she accidentally broke a vase, the merchant’s son beat her so badly that she could not leave her bed for days.
Bakhita was then sold to a Turkish general, tasked with serving his mother-in-law and wife. Both treated Bakhita with extreme cruelty. They whipped her daily and scared her body with deep razor lines, even rubbing salt into them. The abuse left 114 scars on Bakhita’s body.
In the 1870s, Muhammad Ahmad, a Muslim cleric in Sudan, began to agitate for religious renewal and freedom from foreign control. He led a major revolt against the Turks and declared himself the Mahdi, essentially a Muslim Messiah.
As the Mahdists were closing in on El Obeid, Bakhita was sold for a fifth time. Unlike her previous masters, Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani treated her kindly. When the Mahdists besieged Khartoum, Legnani slipped out of the city, bringing Bakhita with him at her request. Along with Legnani’s friend Augusto Michieli, they traveled 450 miles to the port city of Suakin. There, the party set sail and arrived in Genoa in 1885. Legnani gave Bakhita to Michieli’s wife as a gift.
Bakhita’s primary job was to be a nanny to Michieli’s daughter. While arrangements were being made to move the family to Sudan, Bakhita and the daughter were sent to the convent of the Canossian sisters in Venice. There, Bakhita learned of a different Master, who was flogged on her behalf, who created her, knew her, and loved her. Bakhita had longed to know the Creator, and now she had found Him. She placed her hope in Christ.
When Michieli’s wife returned, Bakhita refused to leave the convent. In fact, the convent went to court to protect Bakhita. The court ruled that since slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth and was illegal in Italy, Bakhita had never legally been a slave and thus was not the property of the Michieli family. Bakhita stayed in the convent, was baptized, took Communion, and was confirmed by Archbishop Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice and future Pope Pius X. Eventually, she took the names Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (Latin for “Bakhita,” or “Lucky”).
Bakhita became a Canossian sister and was assigned to the convent at Schio in Vicenza. She was so kind and gentle that she was regarded as a living saint. The townspeople even thought her presence would protect them during World War II. As it turns out, Schio was bombed but suffered no loss of life during the war.
From 1935-1939, Bakhita was sent to Milan to help prepare sisters to be missionaries to Africa. According to her biographer, “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.”
Bakhita died on February 8, 1947, and was canonized on October 1, 2000. Today, the anniversary of her death, also her feast day according to Roman Catholic practice, has become the International Day of Prayer to Stop Human Trafficking. When asked what she would say to her captors if given the chance, Josephine replied, “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 [Canossian] today.”