St. Josephine Bakhita: Witness and Companion for Trafficked Persons

Today is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita.  Last semester I wrote a paper on the ministry of reconciliation for trafficked persons which included a section on St. Josephine Bakhita.  In honor of her feast day, I thought I'd share it on the blog:

Children raise their hands in front of a mural of St. Bakhita at
St. Bakhita Parish  in Jeberona displacement camp
on the outskirts of Khartoum
St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 to a “reasonably prosperous” family in rural Sudan.  When she was five or six, her sister was kidnapped by slave raiders.  Three years later, she was kidnapped herself by men who used deception to separate her from her companion. Eight or nine years old, she was so traumatized she could not speak her name.  Her captors called her “Bakhita,” which means fortunate one, a common name for female slaves. Bakhita was sold numerous times and suffered extreme torture and sexual violence. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian diplomat who brought her to Italy to work as a slave servant for the daughter of a friend attending a convent school. It was in Italy that Bakhita first learned about Jesus, who she first saw depicted on the cross.  Like Jesus, “she knew the pain of the lash, of beatings, of abuse.” She was baptized  in 1890 in Italy as Josephine Margaret Mary Bakhita.[1]

In time, the Italian diplomat came to take her back with him, as his slave, to Sudan.  She refused to go, claiming her self-agency and new found identity as a child of God.  She was supported by the Canossian Sisters who ran the convent school and the Archbishop of Milan.  She took her case to court and learned that since slavery was illegal in Italy, she had been free since she arrived. Josephine joined the Canossian Sisters in 1896 and spent 51 years in community.  Her superior asked her to write down the story of her time as a slave and she told her story at various talks. In her later years, she suffered great physical pain.  It is reported that in her delirium she would cry out, “Loosen the chains … they are so heavy.”  She died in 1947.[2]

St. Josephine Bakhita’s story witnesses to the long, hard journey of trafficked people to rebuild their lives.  She suffered great pain and trauma, even to the point of forgetting her given name and reliving her suffering in her last days. Yet she was able to regain her self-agency, rebuild her story, and reconnect to a new community. I believe she can serve as a witness and companion to trafficked persons and ministers of reconciliation. Indeed, at her canonization in 2000, Pope John Paul II invited the whole church to invoke her intercession “upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters …. that they may know reconciliation and peace.”[3]

[1] M. Shawn Copeland, "St. Josephine Bakhita,” in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: the Art of Janet McKenzie, ed. Susan Perry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 113-118.
[2] Archdiocese of Juba, Saint Bakhita,” http://www.bakhitaradio.org/ index.php?option=com_ content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=57.
[3] John Paul II, “Homily for the Canonizations of St. Katharine Drexel, 120 Chinese Martyrs, St. Josephine Bakhita and St. Maria Josefa Sancho de Guerra,” http://www.vatican. va/ holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/2000/ documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20001001_ canonization_en.html.

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