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  • Writer's pictureRachel Conrad Carlson

Josephine Bakhita: A Saint for Today

We named our second daughter Josephina Clare, after many strong women: St. Clare of Assisi, Jo from Little Women, my beloved Aunt Debbie Jo, and, most pertinent to today’s feast day, St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. Her story of enslavement, torture and the subsequent attempts to strip her humanity from her—including her very name—reveal a young woman of astonishing strength who still chose to turn her heart towards God. Today, in light of the many genocides and erasures of minority voices occurring this very moment, I think it’s especially powerful to highlight one of the very few Black women the church has chosen to canonize. 


Born to a prosperous family in Darfur, Sudan in 1869, Josephine was kidnapped by Arab slavers during a walk in the woods sometime before she turned ten. (Yes, that same Darfur currently suffering ethnic cleansing and genocide. Here’s a fairly in-depth overview of the history and current situation, if you’d care to learn more). 

 

The Arab slavers renamed the stolen girl “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate,” meant to provide luck to her owners. Likely due to the horrendous trauma she endured, Josephine forgot the name her parents gave her at birth. It wasn’t until she joined the convent years later that she was able to choose a name for herself. And when she finally did, she chose to keep a Latin form of the name given by her enslavers, Fortunata, as a reclamation and statement of how she considered herself very fortunate. 


After her capture, Josephine was bought and sold several times, tried to escape at least once, and was horrifically tortured and maimed while in the household of an Ottoman general. Josephine was next bought by the Italian consular agent to Sudan, even though owning slaves was illegal in both Sudan and Italy! When the Consul fled to Italy during a siege, he brought fourteen-year-old Josephine with him and “gifted” her to friends of his as a nursemaid for their baby girl. Later, Josephine accompanied the daughter to the convent of the Canossian Sisters in Venice for education, where she encountered Christian faith for the first time. 

 

When the owner’s wife arrived to pick them up a few years later, twenty-year old Josephine refused to leave. Unsurprisingly, both the mistress and even the Sisters at the convent attempted to shame and guilt her into “obeying,” but she held firm until her case made it all the way to the Royal Procurator of Rome, who wrote that Bakhita was free since slavery did not exist in Italy, and her entire enslavement had been illegal. Though most accounts herald Josephine as joyful and gentle, I cannot fully wrap my mind around the courage and steely character it must have taken for this young, Black woman who was repeatedly told she was someone else’s property to stand against her oppressors like that. 

 

Josephine entered the novitiate in 1893 at the age of twenty-four and lived over 50 years as a Canossian sister before passing in 1947.  At the bequest of her Mother Superior in 1910, Sister Josephine dictated the story of her life, which became her autobiography, Il Diario. 

 

Yet in my research, I could not find access to her autobiography—and therefore her unfiltered voice—anywhere. After much searching, in both Italian and English, I found that it was at one time published in English by Paulines Publications Africa, but there is no online access to that printing and I could not find it printed in the US. There are at least two detailed, popular biographies ABOUT her which candidly admit they used her autobiography as their main source. However, upon first glance at least, the authors seem to largely strip her own words away, instead summarizing them into a third person account of her life. I say all this to emphasize that erasure of minority voices still occurs today, and I believe Josephine Bakhita still has a lot to say to us. 

 

In stark contrast to her lived experience, the words that we do have from Josephine Bakhita are filled with joy and peace. I’ll end by listing a few of her quotes, and I invite you to slowly read each one, savoring their truths and letting God speak to you still through this provocative woman, Sister Josephine Bakhita. 

 

 “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”

 

“I have given everything to my Master: He will take care of me… The best thing for us is not what we consider best, but what the Lord wants of us!”

 

“The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!”

 

 

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