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The former child slave who served as a Sister for 50 years

St Josephine was treated as a slave for years, but insisted: ‘My life is good’

Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947) became the first person from Africa to be canonised since the fall of the Roman Empire.
She was born in the western Sudanese region of Darfur at Olgossa, where her uncle was the local chief. At nine, however, she was kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Completely traumatised, she forgot her name; her captors called her Bakhita, which means “fortunate one”.

The irony persisted, for over the next years she suffered appalling treatment. On one occasion she was beaten to the verge of death; on another she was tattooed with multiple deep cuts, after which salt was rubbed into the wounds.

In 1883, however, she was sold to the Italian vice-consul, Callisto Legnani, who proved a kindly master. When, two years later, he fled from the nationalist rising of the Mahdi – this was the time General Gordon was killed at Khartoum – he took Bakhita with him to Italy.

There she was passed on to the wife of his friend, Augusto Michaeli. For three years she lived with the Michaelis near Venice, as nanny to their daughter Minnina. In 1888, when business obliged the Michaeli parents to remove to the Red Sea, Bakhita and Mininna were entrusted to the care of the Canossian Sisters.

In the convent Bakhita came to understand the God whom, as she put it, she had experienced in her heart since her childhood, without ever knowing who He was.

When the Michaelis returned to Italy they demanded in distinctly proprietorial manner that Bakhita should be returned to them. Bakhita, with uncharacteristic firmness, insisted on staying put and was supported by the Italian courts.

Baptised in 1890, she was given the name Giuseppina, translated as Josephine. She took her final vows in 1896, and lived as a Canossian Sister for more than 50 years.

In 1902 she moved from Venice to a convent in Schio in the province of Vicenza, working variously as a cook, seamstress, embroiderer, sacristan and doorkeeper.

She proved especially popular with children who visited her convent.

“If I were to meet the slave traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me,” Josephine reflected, “I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that had not happened I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”

In 1930 she published her memoirs and from 1935 she travelled around Italy delivering lectures on her experiences. An invalid in old age, she simply reflected that this was “as the Master desires”.

Josephine Bakhita was canonised in 2000. In November 2007 Pope Benedict XVI held her out in his second encyclical Spe Salvi as an example of Christian hope.

“I am definitely loved,” she had learnt, “and whatever happens to me, I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”