From slave to Saint

by | Feb 15, 2013 | Vincentian Family | 1 comment

St. Josephine Bakhita is the first person ever from Sudan to be canonized, or even beatified. She is the first African to be canonized since the early centuries of Christianity, when several North Africans (one of the cores of Christianity before it turned Muslim) were declared Saints. She already has been a symbol of faith and unity for Christians in the war-ravaged country of Sudan for long time, and 8 February is celebrated all over the Christian parts of Sudan.”If I was to meet those slave raiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I’d kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not have been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.”

See this trailer from a movie about her life. Benedict described this as “A very beautiful film.”

Full Story

Born in a village in Sudan, kidnapped by slavers, often beaten and abused, and later sold to Federico Marin, a Venetian merchant, Bakhita then came to Italy and became the nanny servant of Federico’s daughter, Aurora, who had lost her mother at birth. She is treated as an outcast by the peasants and the other servants due to her black skin and African background, but Bakhita is kind and generous to others. Bakhita gradually comes closer to God with the help of the kind village priest, and embraces the Catholic faith.

She requests to join the order of Canossian sisters, but Marin doesn’t want to give her up as his servant, treating her almost as his property. This leads to a moving court case that raised an uproar which impacts Bakhita’s freedom and ultimate decision to become a nun. Pope John Paul II declared her a saint in the year 2000. Directed by Giacamo Campiotti (St. Giuseppe Moscati, Doctor Zhivago) and stars Fatou Kine Boye, Stefania Rocca, Fabio Sartor, Ettore Bassi, and Francesco Salvi. Includes a 16 page collector’s booklet by Daria Sockey.

1869 – 1947

St. Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan in 1869. This African flower, who knew the anguish of kidnapping and slavery, bloomed marvelously in Italy, in response to God’s grace, with the Daughters of Charity, where everyone still calls her “Mother Moretta” (our Black Mother”).

Bakhita was not the name she received from her parents at birth. The fright and the terrible experience she went through made her forget the name her parents gave her. Bakhita, which means “fortunate”, was the name given to her by her kidnappers.

Sold in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, she experienced the physical and moral humiliations and sufferings of slavery. In the Sudanese capital, Bakhita was bought by an Italian consul, Callisto Legnani. For the first time since the day she was kidnapped, she realized with pleasant surprise that no one used the lash when giving her orders; instead, she was treated with love and cordiality. In the consul’s residence Bakhita experienced peace, warmth and moments of joy, eventhough veiled with nostalgia for her own family whom, perhaps, she had lost forever.

The political situation forced the consul to leave for Italy. Bakhita asked and obtained permission to go with him and a friend of his, a certain Mr. Augusto Michieli. On their arrival in Genoa, Mr. Legnani, at the request of Mr. Michieli’s wife, agreed to leave Bakhita with them. She followed the new “family”, which settled in Zianigo, near Mirano Veneto.

When their daughter Mimmina was born, Bakhita became her babysitter and friend. The acquisition and management of a large hotel in Suakin on the Red Sea forced Mrs. Michieli to move to Suakin to help her husband. Meanwhile, on the advice of their administrator, Mimmina and Bhakita were entrusted to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of Catechumens in Venice.

It was there that that Bakhita came to know about God, whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who he was” since she was a child. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stras, I said to myself: who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage…”.

After several months in the catechumenate, Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian initiation and was given a new name, Josephine. It was 9 January 1890. She did not know how to express her joy that day. Her big and expressive eyes sparkled, revealing deep emotions. From then on, she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!”.

When Mrs. Michieli returned from Africa to take her daughter and Bakhita, the latter, with unusual firmness and courage, expressed her desire to remain with the Canosian Sisters and to serve that God who had shown her so many proofs of his love. The young African, who by then had come of age, enjoyed the freedom of choice which Italian law garanteed.

Bakhita remained in the catechumenate where she experienced the call to be a religious and to give herself to the Lord in the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa. On 8 December 1896 Josephine Bakhita was consecrated forever to God, whom she called by the sweet name of “the Master!”. For the next 50 years this humble Daughter of Charity, a true witness to the love of God, lived in the Schio community, involved in various services: cooking, sewing, embroidery and attending to the door.

When she was on duty at the door, she would gently lay her hands on the heads of the children who daily attended the Canossian schools and caress them. Her amicable voice, which had the infection and rhythm of music of her country, was pleasing to the little ones, comforting to the poor and suffering and encouraging to those who knocked at the institute’s door.

Her humility, simplicity and constant smile won the hearts of all the citizens. Her sisters in the community esteemed her for her constant sweet nature, exquisite goodness and deep desire to make the Lord known. “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who not know him. What a great grace it is to know God!”, she said.

As she grew older she expereinced long, painful years of sicjkness. Mother Bakhita continued to witness to faith, goodness and Christian hope. To those who visited her and asked how she was, she would respond with a smile: “As the Master desires”. During her agony, she relived the terrible days of her slavery and more than once begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains…they are heavy!”.

It was Blessed Mary who freed her from pain. Her last words were: Our lady! Our Lady!”, and her final smile testified to her encounter with the Lord’s Mother.

Mother Bakhita breathed her last on 8 February 1947 at the Canossian convent in Schio, surrounded by the sisters. A crowd quickly gathered at the convent to have a last look at their “Mother Moretta” and ask for her protection from heaven. The fame of her sanctity has spread to all the continents and many receive graces through her intercession.

Josephine Bakhita was beatified on 17 May 1992, and Canonized on 1 October 2000.


from Wikipedia

Josephine Margaret Bakhita, F.D.C.C., was a Sudanese-born former slave who became a Canossian Religious Sister in Italy, living and working there for 45 years. In 2000 she was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Early life

She was born about in 1869 in the western Sudanese region of Darfur; in the village of Olgossa, west of Nyala and close to Mount Agilerei.[1] She belonged to the prestigious Daju people;[2][3] her well respected and reasonably prosperous father was brother of the village chief. She was surrounded by a loving family of three brothers and three sisters; as she says in her autobiography: “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering”.[4]

Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, who already had kidnapped her elder sister two years earlier. She was cruelly forced to walk barefoot about 960 kilometers (600 mi) to El Obeid and was already sold and bought twice before she arrived there. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three more times and then given away. It is said that the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name; she took one given to her by the slavers, bakhita, Arabic for lucky.[5][6] She was also forcibly converted to Islam.[7]

Life as a slave

In El Obeid, Bakhita was bought by a very rich Arab merchant who employed her as a maid in service to his two daughters. They liked her and treated her well. But after offending one of her owner’s sons, possibly for breaking a vase, the son lashed and kicked her so severely that she spent more than a month unable to move from her straw bed. Her fourth owner was a Turkish general and she had to serve his mother-in-law and his wife who both were very cruel to all their slaves. Bakhita says: “During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day, that passed without some wound or other. When a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me”.[8]

She says that the most terrifying of all her memories there, was when she (in common with other slaves) was marked by a process resembling both scarification and tattooing.[9] As her mistress was watching her with a whip in her hand, a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a razor were brought by a woman. She used the flour to draw patterns on her skin and then she cut deeply along the lines before filling the wounds with salt to ensure permanent scarring. A total of 114 intricate patterns were cut into her breasts, belly, and into her right arm.[10][11]

Conversion and freedom

By the end of 1882 El Obeid came under the threat of an attack of Mahdist revolutionaries.[12] The Turkish general began making preparations to return to his homeland. He sold all his slaves but selected ten of them to be sold later, on his way through Khartoum. There in 1883 Bakhita was bought by the Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani, who was a very kind man. For the first time since her captivity she was able to enjoy some peace and tranquillity. Two years later, when Legnani himself had to retun to Italy, Bakhita begged to go with him. By the end of 1884 they left already besieged Khartoum, on a risky 650-kilometer (400 mi) trip on camel back, to Suakin, which then was the largest port of Sudan. In March 1885 they left Suakin for Italy and in April, at the Italian port of Genoa, they were met by the wife of a friend, Augusto Michieli, who had escaped from Khartoum with them. Callisto Legnani gave Bakhita as a present to Signora Maria Turina Michieli, and her new masters took her to their family villa at Zianigo, near Mirano Veneto, about 25 km (16 mi) west of Venice.[9] She lived there for three years and became nanny to the Michieli’s daughter Alice, known as Mimmina, born in February 1886. With her new family Bakhita even spent about nine months in Sudan again.

Suakin had also been besieged but remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands. Augusto Michieli acquired there a large hotel, decided to sell his entire property in Italy and to move his family to Sudan permanently. The selling of his house and lands took much longer than expected and by the end of 1888 Turina had to see her husband before the sale was complete. Since the villa in Zianigo was already sold, Bakhita and Mimmina needed a temporary place to stay. At the advice of their business agent Illuminato Cecchini, on 29 November 1888, Signora Turina Michieli left them in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. But when she returned to take them both to Suakin, Bakhita firmly refused to leave. For a full three days Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, but the superior of the institute for baptismal candidates (Catechumenate) that Bakhita had attended, complained to the authorities. On 29 November 1889 an Italian court ruled that, because Sudan had outlawed slavery before Bakhita’s birth and because in any case Italian law did not recognize slavery, Bakhita had never legally been a slave.[13] Bakhita had now reached the age of maturity; for the first time in her life she found herself in control of her own destiny. And she chose to remain with the Canossians.[14]

Canossian Sister

On 9 January 1890 Bakhita was baptised with the names of Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (which is the Latin translation for the Arabic Bakhita). On the same day she was also confirmed and received Holy Communion from the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, the future Pope Pius X, himself.[15] On 7 December 1893 she entered the novitiate of the Canossian Sisters and on 8 December 1896 she took her vows, welcomed by the cardinal. In 1902 she was assigned to the Canossian convent at Schio, in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life. Her only extended time away was between 1935 and 1939, when she stayed at the Missionary Novitiate in Vimercate (Milan); mostly visiting other Canossian communities in Italy, talking about her experiences and helping to prepare young sisters for work in Africa.[15] A strong missionary drive animated her throughout her entire life – “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa”.[16]

During her 42 years in Schio, Bakhita was employed as the cook, sacristan and portress (door keeper) and was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as Sor Moretta (“little brown sister”) or Madre Moretta (“black mother”). Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order; the first publication of her story (Storia Meravigliosa by Ida Zanolini) in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy.[2][17] During the Second World War (1939–1945) she shared the fears and hopes of the town people, who considered her a saint and felt protected by her mere presence. Not quite in vain as the bombs did not spare Schio, but the war passed without one single casualty.

Her last years were marked by pain and sickness. She used a wheelchair, but she retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, she would always smile and answer “as the Master desires”. In the extremity of her last hours her mind was driven back to the years of her slavery and she cried out “The chains are too tight, loosen them a little, please!”. After a while she came round again. Someone asked her: “How are you? Today is Saturday”. “Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady… Our Lady!”. These were her last audible words.[18]

Bakhita died at 8:10 PM on 8 February 1947. For three days her body lay on display while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects.

Legacy and canonization

A young student once asked Bakhita: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she 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”.[19]

The petitions for her canonization began immediately, and the process officially commenced in 1959, only twelve years after her death. On 1 December 1978, Pope John Paul II declared Josephine Venerabilis, the first step towards canonization. On 17 May 1992, she was declared Blessed and given February 8 as her feast day. On 1 October 2000, she was canonized and became Saint Josephine Bakhita. She is venerated as a modern African saint, and as a statement against the brutal history of slavery. She has been adopted as the only patron saint of Sudan.

Bakhita’s legacy is that transformation is possible through suffering. Her story of deliverance from physical slavery also symbolizes all those who find meaning and inspiration in her life for their own deliverance from spiritual slavery.[20] On a larger scale, however, Bakhita’s story of a slave who was forced to convert to Islam and later chose Christianity represents a conflict between Christianity and Islam. In May 1992 news of her beatification was banned by Khartoum which Pope John Paul II then personally visited only nine months later.[7] On 10 February 1993, facing all risks, surrounded by an immense crowd in the huge Green Square of the capital of Sudan, he solemnly honoured Bakhita on her own soil. “Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free. Free with the freedom of the saints.” [21]

Pope Benedict XVI, on 30 November 2007, in the beginning of his second encyclical letter Spe Salvi (In Hope We Were Saved), relates her entire life story as an outstanding example of the Christian hope. Sadly, the suffering of her people in Sudan continues.[22][23]


  1. ^ Dagnino, p.10. The map of Sudan here shows the village of Olgossa (Algozney in the Daju tongue) slightly west of the 3,042 m (9,980 feet) Jebel Marrah and of the 785 m Jebel Agilerei. Though on p. 37 she seems to place Olgossa about 40 km north-east of Nyala.
  2. ^ a b Davis, Cyprian (1986).“Black Catholic Theology: A Historical Perspective”, Theological Studies 61 (2000), pp. 656–671.
  3. ^ Dagnino, pp. 23-25.
  4. ^ Bakhita in Dagnino, p. 37
  5. ^ O’Malley, p. 32.
  6. ^ Dagnino, pp. 29-32. Every slave was always given a new name. Bakhita herself never mentions this incident.
  7. ^ a b Hutchison, p. 7
  8. ^ Bakhita in Dagnino, p. 49.
  9. ^ a b Burns and Butler, p. 53.
  10. ^ Dagnino, pp. 52-53
  11. ^ African Online News, 2000 October 14
  12. ^ Mahdist Revolution (1881-1898) was an Islamic revolt against the Ottoman-Egyptian rule of Sudan, begun by Islamic fundamentalist cleric Muhammad Ahmad. El Obeid fell on 19 January 1883, Khartoum on 26 January 1885. The Mahdi Ahmad himself died on 1885 June 22.
  13. ^ Wikipedia Italiana
  14. ^ O’Malley, pp. 33-34.
  15. ^ a b Burns and Butler, p. 54.
  16. ^ Dagnino, p. 99
  17. ^ O’Malley, p. 34.
  18. ^ Dagnino, p. 104
  19. ^ Dagnino, p. 113.
  20. ^ African Online News.
  21. ^ John Paul II, Homily at the Eucharistic Concelebration in honour of Josephine Bakhita, Khartoum, 10 February 1993.
  22. ^ Benedict XVI, Encyclical “Spe salvi”, November 30, 2007
  23. ^ Radio Dabanga: Independent daily news from Darfur


  • African Online News (2000).Josephine Bakhita – an African Saint. 2000 October 14. Retrieved on 5 January 2010.
  • Burns, Paul; Butler, Alban (2005). Butler’s Lives of the Saints: Supplement of New Saints and Blesseds, Volume 1, pp. 52-55. Liturgical Press. ISBN 0-8146-1837-5
  • Carter, Rozann (2011). St. Josephine Bakhita and the Door to Holiness. Word On Fire, 2011 Retrieved on 7 February 2012.
  • Copeland, M. Shawn (2009). St Josephine Bakhita. In: Perry, Susan ed. Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: the Art of Janet McKenzie. New York, pp. 113-118. ISBN 1-57075-844-1
  • Dagnino, Maria Luisa (1993). Bakhita Tells Her Story. Third edition, 142 p. Canossiane Figlie della Carità, Roma. Includes the complete text of Bakhita’s autobiography (pp. 37–68).
  • Davis, Cyprian (2000). Black Catholic Theology: A Historical Perspective. In: Theological Studies, 61, pp. 656-671.
  • Hurst, Ryan. Mahdist Revolution (1881-1898) In: Online Encyclopedia of Significant People in Global African History. Retrieved on 8 June 2011.
  • Hutchison, Robert (1999). Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei, St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-19344-0
  • Maynard, Jean Olwen (2002). Josephine Bakhita: The Lucky One. London, 76 p. ISBN 1-86082-150-2
  • O’Malley, Vincent (2001). St. Josephine Bakhita. In: Saints of Africa, pp. 32–35. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. ISBN 0-87973-373-X
  • Roche, Aloysius (1964). Bakhita, Pearl of the Sudan. Verona Fathers, London, 96 p.
  • Zanini, Roberto Italo (2000). Bakhita: A Saint For the Third Millennium. Orca Printing Company, 190 p.
  • Zanolini, Ida (2000). Tale of Wonder: Saint Giuseppina Bakhita. 8th edition, 255 p. ISBN 2-7468-0294-5
  • Biography from the Vatican website: English French Italian Portuguese
  • A short biography from Patron Saints Index
  • A brief biography in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, paragraph 3
  • Giuseppina Bakhita in Wikipedia Italiana Retrieved on 14 February 2011.
  • Canossian Daughters of Charity
  • Bakhita: The Musical. Lyrics by Mookie Katigbak, music by Niel De Mesa. A Presentation of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Manila 2000.Includes lyrics of 22 musical numbers.
  • Two Suitcases: The Story Of St. Josephine Bakhita” (2000). Directed by Paolo Damosso. An Italian movie with dubbed English track. 58 minutes.
  • Bakhita: From Slave to Saint (2009) Directed by Giacomo Campiotti, scored by Stefano Lentini. In Italian with English subtitles. 190 (originally 207) minutes.
  • TABASAMU (Mother) from the Bakhita soundtrack by Stefano Lentini 2:38 min.
  • Website of the Canossian Foundation

Tags: Bakhita, Saint

1 Comment

  1. Lynn L'Heureux

    I loved this story and was mesmerised and found myself wanting more. How beautiful, love, kindness and patience, longing for her creator and saviour. Such a perfect story.

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