I wrote this while I was stuck in Chicago and had a lot of free time on my hands. My hometown of Dallas was going through an unprecedented snowpocalypse, and I couldn’t get back, so why not explore some saints since I’m stuck inside anyway, right?
St. Josephine was at the top of his list, and after a quick cursory search of her Wikipedia page I was excited to dig into a more recent saint, since most of the others I’ve covered have been from around the third century.
I wasn’t not snowed in alone. I was actually quarantining with my very Catholic friend, Marcia. Her brother recently passed, and as an unfortunate member of the deceased brother’s club, I came into town to offer my support and attend his funeral. And then when we realized I couldn’t leave, we decided to start our post-travel quarantine early – together.
Marcia famously labels herself as a “Whole Black Woman” to my constant delight. So I naively assumed she’s be all about a Saint Josephine post. I was interested to hear her more nuanced view on Saint Jo instead, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Saint Josephine, who was born in Darfur in 1869, was captured by slave traders when she was just 7 or 8 years old, having only known a happy life up to that point. They named her “Bakhita” (which ironically means, “fortunate” or “lucky”) since due to the immense trauma she incurred, she’d actually forgot her birth name.
After her capture, Bakhita was forced to walk 600 miles, barefoot, before being sold multiple times when she reached El-Obeid. Over the next 12 years, she was sold three more times and finally given away.
Throughout that period she had both “kind” and cruel masters. One such owner would wound her daily, and at one point she was even branded by them. Her female master cut 114 intricate scars in the skin and filled them with salt for permanence.
In 1885, now with a new owner, Bakhita asked him to take her with him on an upcoming trip to Italy. There was turmoil and persecution, which they were all fleeing from – herself and her master – and she ended up being traded once again to a new owner, Turina Michieli.
For a few years, Bakhita worked as a nanny for Turina’s daughter, Alice. Turina’s husband then decided to sell all of his interests in Italy and take up permanent residence in the Sudan. Turina missed her husband desperately, as it was taking a while to sell their possessions in Italy, so she went to be with him in the Sudan, leaving Bakhita and Alice behind.
Bakhita and the girl needed lodging, since the estate had already been sold, so they ended up in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. This is where Bakhita encountered Christianity for the first time. She claimed it brought her back to the God of her childhood, who had always remained in her heart, without knowing who He actually was.
Turina eventually returned for her daughter and slave, but Bakhita refused to go. Turina petitioned the court but neither Sudan nor Italy would recognize her right to the woman as slavery had either been outlawed or never instituted in either place. Bakhita was free.
She chose to remain with the nuns — who’d gone to bat for her in court — and on January 9, 1890, she became Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (which is the Latin translation for the Arabic Bakhita). She also took her first Holy Communion there. In 1893 she officially entered the order of the Canossian sisters and by 1986 she had taken her vows.
It is said that she had a strong missionary drive and that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.” She lived for another 42 years in Schio, Italy, where her gentle kindness made her somewhat of a celebrity in her province. So much so, that during the Second World War, the townspeople already viewed her as a local saint, whose mere presence could protect them. And while the city was still destroyed by bombs, not a single person lost their life.
She became feeble in her old age and as people would ask how she was doing, she’d simply reply back, “As the master desires.”
This response, coupled with the modern-day understanding we have of trauma and mental health, actually broke my heart a bit. It’s hard not to wonder if she’d merely seen God as a “good” master because she’d been groomed for so many years to always be owned by someone or something else.
As Marcia and I discussed her story, she shared with me how people always assume she loves this saint because of the persecution St. Josephine suffered while enslaved and the ultimate respect she garnered as a Black woman. It’s a perfect “hero’s journey” story, right?
To my surprise, Marcia actually wasn’t a huge fan. She drew my attention to a quote of Saint Josephine’s that is sometimes used as a sort of “prudential” whitewash.
When asked what she would do if she were to ever meet her capturers, 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 religious today.”
We took some time to unpack that over coffee, as the heavy Chicago snow blew ferociously outside our window.
See, when people experience extreme trauma, they often want — or rather, need — not to have suffered it in vain. They need to believe there was some higher purpose for it in order to keep on going. So perhaps that would explain Josephine‘s motives, but I think it’s imperative that we dig even deeper, and face the beast that is white supremacy in this story, head on. Why is this quote, in particular, so famous?
She lived a long life and I’m sure she said many profound things, so is there a chance that those choosing which quotes to remember clung onto this one for … other reasons?
If history has taught us anything — theology, too — it’s that there are quite a few examples of this happening since the beginning of time. Hell, the Reformation was built on picking and choosing what to keep and what to discard based on our own predilection, right?
So, while she did indeed say those words, she’s not the one to shoulder the blame for perpetuating this toxic mentality. I see her as a woman coping with trauma in the best way she can, deserving of our grace. However, I also see a subset of followers — grappling with their own biases and horrific history of abuses — trying to honor her while still absolving themselves from their ancestors’ ugly past, from which they (we?) still likely benefit in the present.
Bottom line: It is very possible, even in this phenomenal saint story, that white supremacy still looms within its lore, because flawed people have chosen which points to elevate and which to ignore. Sadly, this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many people you’d assume would be championing her as a Black Woman Saint. Instead, as Marcia says, “Many black Catholics see her as an ‘Uncle Tom’,” because of the way her tale has been told posthumously.
Not that Marcia doesn’t believe St. Josephine deserves her sainthood. She absolutely does. It’s the telling of St. Josephine’s story that often causes Marcia to recoil, because it whitewashes the injustice of slavery for others’ comfort.
And that is very much something the Church needs to reconcile with. Black Catholics need to know that their white brethren see this too. They need to know that the God you all share can use horrible atrocities for good, absolutely, but that they are not a prerequisite to finding His just love. They also need to hear slavery in particular and racial injustice in general condemned frequently and fervently from the pulpit.
A lot of people don’t know how my column here at the Catholic Herald came to be. After all, I’m agnostic, so it’s kinda weird that I got a gig writing about y’all’s Saints in the first place.
See, back in August of last year, I had a series of super strange serendipitous events happen that involved St. Philomena. First, I accidentally bought a print of her on the streets of NYC because I assumed it was Mary (that’s how Catholic-illiterate I am). Then, I discovered she actually died on my birthday in AD 304, and also, that she is the patron saint of babies and I run a prolife feminist group, so it was just…odd. Friends started saying she was “after me.”
I learned that people who admire her wear something called a “Philomena chord” around their wrists, which is basically just a red and white piece of string. I was headed out of town, but figured I’d get one when I got back home, only to receive some feminist journals from one of the friends I was meeting tied up with a red-and-white cord. It was pretty wild.
I still wear it around my wrist to this day, because it definitely felt like all of these small things were more than just coincidental.
I took to Facebook to tell my friends of these “coincidences” while also explaining a bit about her life and legacy, and that’s when Christopher Altieri reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing about other saints in that same style.
I thought it sounded fun, because not only was I super curious about all of the other historical women that were deemed “too Catholic” during my Protestant upbringing, but I honestly felt a little cheated that I’d never heard of so many of them before.
Then, even more weird stuff started happening. Like, I would randomly pick a lady saint, only to discover that it was the week of her feast day. Almost like they were also finding me, rather than the other way around. Their stories began to impact me in ways I hadn’t expected. Learning of how Saint Monica’s motherly love changed the course of history through her faithfulness to her wayward son, St. Augustine. Or being moved to tears after a trip back from working with migrant mothers at the border, only to read about Saints Perpetua and Felicity – two women who truly suffered for their faith while also bringing a children earth side and nurturing another from the confines of prison. These stories spoke to me on a deep level.
I began to fall in love with these women, and really enjoyed sharing their legacies with other non-believers who’d never heard of them either.
But, eventually, the work load began to feel more like a chore. I have four kids, plus run an international organization, so sometimes the inspiration was lacking to say the least. I’d find myself googling “fascinating lady Saints who people have never heard of” then doing my best not to completely phone in an article about them.
Then I came upon Saint Mary of Egypt – my downfall. 😂 Her story was so amazing and interesting to me because she was a very broken person, but also so very real. And yet, she still found redemption through the Church and it totally transformed her life. That’s the type of heroes journey I live for. To my regular readership, my retelling of her story was a bit more risqué than some of my previous columns, but since they were already familiar with my Saint Stories, it wasn’t all that shocking.
And so it was up for a week with no complaints, until someone much more proper, and less seeped in the American vulgarity I swim laps in daily, found it. A ruckus online ensued. I watched as the comments grew (over *her* orthodox feast day no less) feeling like a bit like Willy Wonka.
Remember that scene where Violet Beauregard snatches the full coarse meal bubble gum and pops it into her mouth? Wonka just kinda sits back before letting out a very dry and unenthusiastic, “stop. don’t.” as she continues to balloon up and turn purple.
It’s not that I didn’t want to keep writing about the saints for y’all, it’s just that I kinda liked it better when they were discovering me. And if pulling this column from the Catholic Herald makes that more of a possibility, then that’s the silver lining to me.
This journey started as a pretty cool spiritual experience for an agnostic, but then it kinda just became a thing I had to do. And here’s the deal, while I will never regret the time I spent learning about the saints, I also look forward to discovering even more amazing women of the past in mystical and mysterious ways.
And finally, as someone who used to work a program that focused heavily on making amends (whether the harm we cause is 100% our fault or only 1%, it’s still our job to keep *our* side of the street clean), I do want to apologize if I caused any offense. I know y’all hold these phenomenal women is high regard, as do I, and that was never my intention. Also, as someone who’s lost my faith I would never wish that on anyone else, and my goal has always been to bring people into a deeper spiritual understanding, even if I don’t yet have it all figured out myself. Maybe I failed this time, but in the words of the late, great Willy Wonka, “Oh well, I’ll get it right in the end.” … hopefully.
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