In 1877, a seven-year-old member of the Daju tribe in Sudan was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Her kidnappers sold her to people who treated slaves brutally, including frequent severe beatings which almost killed her. One of her owners subjected her to an excruciating process of decorative cutting, which left her chest, abdomen, and right arm covered with 114 intricate scars. So traumatic was the experience of her captivity, that the little girl forgot the name that her parents had given her. Her slavers cruelly dubbed her “Bakhita,” the Arabic word for “lucky.” In 1883 her Turkish masters sold her to the Italian Vice Counsel in Sudan, a man named Callisto Legnani, whose family treated Bakhita with relative kindness, and brought her back to Italy with them. There, Legnani “gave” Bahkita to his friend’s wife, Maria Michieli, who entrusted Bakhita with the care of her daughter, Mimmina.
It was in the Michieli household near Venice that Bakhita first encountered Christianity. A family friend gave Bahkita a crucifix and explained to her that God had become man and died for our sins. She was moved to hear of this God who had experienced being whipped and beaten and crucified, and kept the crucifix as her treasured possession. When the Michielis went to the Sudan to complete a business transaction, they left their daughter and Bakhita in Venice under the care of a religious community called the Canossians, and event that changed her life. In later years, Bakhita would say: “I remember how, as a child, when I contemplated the sun, the moon, the stars and all the beautiful things of nature, I was wondering, ‘who is the master of it all?’ And I felt a keen desire to see Him, to know Him, and to pay Him homage…. Those holy mothers [the Canossians] instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”
When the Michielis returned from the Sudan, Bakhita refused to return to them. The Michielis sought to force the issue with a court order, but the court ruled against them, and Bakhita remained with the Canossians. In 1893 she was baptized, confirmed, and received First Communion from Cardinal Sarto of Venice, who would later become Pope St. Pius X. She took the name Josephine Margaret, and she entered the Canossian order as a novice three years later. She spent the rest of her life living with her sisters as the community’s cook, seamstress, and doorkeeper. She also gave guidance to the sisters who would be sent as missionaries to Africa. One of the students at the school asked her what she would do if she ever met her former captors. She immediately responded: “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.” Josephine Bakhita’s sanctity was apparent to everyone and her cause for sainthood was opened 12 years after her death in 1947. In 1992, the woman who was cruelly called “Lucky” by her captors was declared “Blessed” by the Church in 1992, and eventually “Saint” in 2000.
The powerful story of St. Josephine Bakhita is of great importance in our day, when human trafficking remains a horrific problem. According to Catholic Relief Services there are approximately 25 million trafficking victims worldwide, including in the US, generating $150 billion in illegal profits each year. Two-thirds of that money comes from sexual exploitation, the rest from other forms of commercial exploitation, such as domestic work and agriculture. While supporting the systematic crackdown on this pernicious form of modern slavery, we ask St. Josephine Bakhita to pray for its victims and the conversion of those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of others.