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St. Josephine Bakhita (February 8)

February 8, 2008

The year was 1878. Just outside a small village in the Sudan, two little girls, about 9 years old, were in the meadow happily picking garlands of flowers for their mothers. Suddenly two strangers appeared out of the barley. One kindly asked one of the girls to fetch a bundle he’d left behind a tree. Obedient, as she’d been taught, off she went. Next she knew, a rough hand had her by the shoulders–she was a prisoner! She knew what that meant. Just two years before, her oldest sister had been captured by slavers, leaving behind a baby and a broken-hearted family. The girl cried for her mommy, whom she would never see again. She was marched to the slavers’ village and chained up in the dark for the night. She was so traumatized that she couldn’t even remember her own name. Her captors called her “Bakhita”, “the lucky one”. She was bought and sold several times, sometimes to kind masters, sometimes to masters who beat her so severely she almost died. When she was 13, one mistress subjected her to a cruel tattooing. Sixty-six designs were deeply cut into her body with a razor blade, then rubbed repeatedly with salt to make them stand out. She later said, “The pain was indescribable. I can truly say that the only reason I didn’t die was that the Lord had better things in store for me.” Finally, in 1883, she was purchased by Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan. He was a kind-hearted man, who gave her work she enjoyed and allowed her to dress up and have her hair done like other African girls her age. The horrors of slavery were finally beginning to ease. Something was still missing though. She hungered for God. “Who is the master of the beautiful stars, who lights them in the night, and puts them out in the morning? Who makes the sun shine and send warmth and light? Oh! how I wish I could know him!”

Two years later, when Khartoum was threatened by revolutionaries, Counsul Lenani returned to Italy, taking Bakhita with him. There he gave her into the keeping of Maria Turina, wife of Signor Michieli, who had taken a fancy to her at first sight. A year later Madame Turina gave birth to a little girl, Mimmina, and Bakhita became her nanny. How she loved this child! Amid the laughter and fun and children’s games, the cruel past became a dim memory. Bakhita had a brief opportunity to see her country again, when the family she served moved back to Africa, but she was soon sent with Mimmina to a boarding school run by the Canossian Sisters in Venice. There she finally learned of the God for Whom her heart had always yearned. She drank in every word, and treasured the crucifix the Sisters gave her.

A year later, when Madame Turina returned to take Bakhita and Mimmina home to Africa, Bakhita refused to leave. Madame Turina became furious. She commanded, begged, threatened…but Bakhita had found her home. The Sisters defended her, appealing to the highest religious and civil authorities. The Royal Procurator, the Patriarch of Venice and the Superior of the House all agreed that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was free. She suffered greatly on seeing her mistress so bitter and sad and on losing the child she loved so much, but she would not leave the God she had finally found.

Less than two months later, to her great joy, she was Baptized, Confirmed and received her First Holy Communion, taking the name Josephine. She never forgot that day. She would kiss the baptismal font, saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!” “Soon, I began to realize that there was a great desire growing inside me: to live for Jesus. Oh, if only I could have just flown back home to visit my people! I could have let my nearest and dearest know all about the love of God, and share this Good News with all my African brothers and sisters! How comforted they would have been to know that there was Someone who loved them and was thinking of them!” Seven years later, she took vows as a Canossian Sister. The following year, she was moved to their convent in Schio, which was a school and orphanage for girls of every age. There she spent the last 50 years of her life, helping wherever she could. She served as a cook, sacristan, seamstress, embroiderer and doorkeeper. During World War I, the convent was partially taken over to look after wounded soldiers. One priest, who watched her caring for these wounded, remarked, “That African Sister is goading me on in my ministry!”

As the door-keeper she was affectionately known as the “Dear African Sister”, or “Mother Moretta” (literally, “black mother”). She gently caressed the students as they came, answering their many questions, encouraging and comforting them with her gentle, rhythmic voice. Residents of Schio who came to the convent, especially the poor and the suffering, came to love her humility, simplicity and constant smile. Her trust in God was absolute. “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!” Her forgiveness of her captors and harsh “owners” was awe-inspiring. “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today…”

As her deep holiness became known, Bakhita’s superiors ordered to write her memoirs. When these were published in 1930, she rapidly became a celebrity. Speaking requests and fund-raising for the order took her all over Italy. Even when failing health confined her to a wheelchair, she continued to serve. To a Sister who asked if she wanted to go to Heaven, she replied, “I wish neither to go nor to stay. God knows where to find me, when He wants me.” During World War II, she fell seriously ill. On this day in 1947, surrounded by her Sisters, she went to meet her beloved Master. Her last words were, “Our Lady! Our Lady!

St. Josephine Bakhita, model of holy freedom, pray for us, that we might love our divine Master as much as you do!

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