Saint Josephine Bakhita

Author: Sr Maria Carla Frison*

This year, the liturgical feast of Saint Bakhita invited us to rediscover ourselves — invited by life — to the school of love, and of humanity. The theme: “With Bakhita at the school of humanity” was chosen in Schio following an encounter between the Schio-Sudan Bakhita Association, the parish of Saint Peter’s, where the Shrine of Saint Bakhita is located and we Canossian sisters, members of the community where “Mother Moretta” (Black Mother) lived, al­most continuously, from 1902 until 8 February 1947. For the event, some Canossian sisters travelled from Ver­ona to hold a vigil with young people [with the theme]: “A light in the night” against human trafficking. The feast of Saint Bakhita is in fact the day chosen by the Church to ask collectively for liberation from an­cient and new contemporary slavery.

Saint Bakhita is still with us today. This is the awareness of those who recognize in her a prophecy for these times of migration flows to­wards Italy, a land considered by many as the “doorway” to Europe. The six Eucharistic celebrations of the Solemnity of Saint Bakhita in Schio, also recalled the sacrifices made for the cause by Don Antonio Doppio and Don Giacomo Bravo, who died in Sudan, the native land of Saint Bakhita, where they had gone to start solidarity projects. For 10 years, this inheritance has been taken up by the Bakhita Committee which has now become an Associ­ation in order to continue the caring work that today Bakhita would have liked to carry out for her own people.

It is interesting what Ida Zanolini, a lay Canossian woman who pub­lished Mother Bakhita’s first biography, wrote about her. Towards the end of her testimony at the can­onization process, where she recoun­ted her meetings with Mother Bakhita — which inspired her first biography entitled Storia meravigliosa (Tale of Wonder) in 1931, — she said: “When I wrote the story of Bakhita I scrupulously followed the accounts and considerations that Mother Bakhita had told me in Venice. I had then the confused feeling that, since she was an extraordinary soul, my writing would sooner or later be useful, thinking that in time the Church would take this story and this extraordinary soul into account” (cf. Ida Zanolini, in Positio, p. 113 §233).

Born in the village of Olgossa (Darfur, Sudan) in 1869, Bakhita had a twin sister, she was loved and she lived peacefully. She was five years old when her older sister was kidnapped and when Bakhita was about seven years old, she experi­enced the same tragedy herself. Awareness of how much the family had already suffered increased her pain knowing that her people were suffering for her, too. She was sold several times, and had eight masters, including the intermediaries, like the kidnappers, who sought the propitious opportunity to resell her for a greater profit.

She was tattooed with 114 deep cuts, which were filled with salt so that the design formed by the lip of
her scars remained; marks which remained white and stood out on her very black skin; the children, to
whom she told her story, who are now elderly, still remember them.

She was forced to wear heavy chains to prevent her from escaping, as she had tried to do by entering
the forest, where she experienced — for the first time — the guidance of a divine light; but, having avoided the danger of the jaws of fierce beasts, she was once again captured by deception. Not a a day went by without wounds being inflicted on her body. Slaves also served to vent the anger of their masters who found sadistic pleasure in hearing them cry out in pain. This martyrdom ended when, in 1882, she was bought by Callisto Legnani, an Italian consular agent in Sudan. In the new house she found peace of heart and dignity of the body, finally dressed not in a straw tutu but in a white robe. 

Bakhita was grateful for the kindness she discovered in the heart of those who were so different from her, but she could not remember [the location of] her village. Thus, from 13 to 16 years old she experienced a Christian welcome and civil respect. In 1885, to avoid the danger to his life as a result of
political unrest, Consul Legnani was forced to leave Africa and Bakhita convinced him to take her with him. She arrived in Italy for the first time.

She left Suakin, then a flourishing port on the Red Sea, and arrived in Genoa where she witnessed what Italian migrants, leaving the same port to look for work, would experi­ence on their arrival in foreign lands. She was given to people she did not know, albeit with the prom­ise of good treatment, but as she left Genoa her heart was in turmoil. Where would she be taken? Would she be treated like a slave again or could she still hope to have the hu­man dignity she had experienced in the consul’s home? For her arrival in Italy, there had been no need for a passport. The consul was her guar­antee. He had paid for her journey and had entrusted her to friends in Genoa, provided that they treated her well, thus guaranteeing her food, home and a job.

Alice Michieli was born in Zianigo, the municipality of Mirano in the Veneto region, in 1886. Known as “Mimmina”, she was treated like a daughter by Bakhita. When the child was about seven months old, Bakhita accompanied her to Suakin in Africa, where, in the hotel bought by the Michieli family, she experienced the awful conditions she would have fallen back into, had she stayed there. After only nine months, Bakhita un­expectedly left Africa with Mimmina who did not want to leave her be­hind. She left for the second time, a land she felt she would never see again. Illuminato Checchini, admin­istrator of the Michieli family, who had fatherly feelings for her, was waiting for her in Zianigo. He re­joiced at seeing her again. He gave her her first crucifix and had the idea of having her live with the little girl she took care of, at the Catechu­mens of Venice, a place where she could be educated and learn about the love of Jesus and the Gospel of salvation.

One year later, when Mrs Michieli returned to take her daughter and Bakhita back to Suakin, she refused for the first time. Bakhita wanted to become a Christian, to receive bap­tism. The Patriarch of Venice was informed, and he sought the advice of the King’s attorney. He did not waver and was adamant that Bakhita was free and had the right to choose, since slavery no longer exis­ted in Italy. On 29 November 1889, at the Catechumens, something sim­ilar to a “trial” took place regarding her choice not to return to the life of slavery, and she was declared free. She had freely chosen to belong to God, by whom she felt loved, and accepted once again the separation from those she loved.

She left Venice and arrived in Schio in 1902, after simply replying: “Yes, Father”, to the question concerning her transfer. In Venice, her story of ransom from slavery, the gift of her faith was well known. In the new house in Schio she found her­self dressed like the other Canossian sisters, but so different from them as to arouse curiosity and the desire to meet her. To the girls who asked her if she wished to be born white she said no: for her everything “her Master/her Lord” had done was fine. During the war, because of her colour, she was also mistaken for be­ing a spy, but she did not get upset, she accompanied those who wanted to arrest her to where she lived and, showing them the window in her room, explained that since her ar­rival in Italy she had received the gift of vocation. Her simplicity was convincing and danger was averted.

As for many migrants today, she explained to those who asked her the reason for her choices, that if she had given in to the insistence to re­turn to her land, “she would have lost body and soul”. But, she felt the separation to such an extent that “with trembling lips and shining eyes” she listened to the stories of the soldiers returning from Africa, informing her of their experience there, of the situation of her people.

Everything is amazing in her, just as the restoring water which gushes out of a spring! When she died her tenderness transfused into her mor­tal flesh and carried on attracting people. The colour of her skin had either frightened or attracted the little ones, who thought she was made of “chocolate”, and intrigued the grown-ups, who had never seen people of other ethnic groups; but that very colour became the priv­ilege given them to have known and loved someone who was different, and to receive love in return. On that 8 February 1947, young and old still sought her for a greeting, to touch her hand, still soft and warm, and to receive a last caress from her: they wanted to hold her forever.

Saint Bakhita still continues to in­tercede, to operate, to help, to solve the insoluble problems of those who turn to her and those who do not yet know her. She seems to be al­ways ready, on the right hand of “her Master”, ready to become his spokesperson to help us and support us in the trials of life. On 17 May, 1992, she was proclaimed blessed, and on 1 October of the Great Ju­bilee of the Year 2000 she was made a saint by John Paul II. Our univer­sal sister was given back to us. An example followed by her successors, who pointed her out both to schol­ars and the poor, declaring her pat­roness of the victims and those who work to free people from all slavery, touching the “flesh of Christ” in those they serve.

Reception centres, training courses or places named after Saint Bakhita are being built throughout various parts of Italy. In some in­stances these are homes that hosted her during her life, and which have now been made available for hu­manitarian corridors — as in Olate in the province of Lecco — or they are employment training centres, even places to play football in high risk areas. We rejoiced to learn that the human integration centre in Cerignola is dedicated to her. The most recent one known to us is the “Casa Santa Giuseppina Bakhita" (Saint Josephine Bakhita House), dedicated as a temporary reception centre for women, located on the is­land of Sant’Elena, in Venice. This project was carried out in collabora­tion between the municipality and the diocesan Caritas. Saint Mag­dalene of Canossa referred to Venice as a “city of projects”; also from Venice came “God’s dream for Mother Bakhita”, who arrived at the Canossian Institute. Bakhita, the first canonized Sudanese saint, led the way for those who today seek among us hope for their life.

Saint Bakhita seems to be a made-to-measure saint to comfort the peace and reconciliation workers of our time. Her historical experi­ence suggests anthropological and spiritual reflections that amazingly manifest the divine imprint of the Creator in a good heart which the harshness of slavery, torture and tire­less work have revealed almost as a precious metal purified by fire. When Pope Francis enlightens us on social justice, to give us the joy of the Gospel, he seems to illustrate the program — already carried out by Saint Bakhita — that uses the word “humanity” to describe what, instead, was “inhuman”, such as the treatment of slaves. She was seven years old when her good heart ex­perienced the pain of seeing her companions unjustly suffer as slaves. Her memories remind us that what bonds us is the same need for love, well beyond our individual beliefs. Bakhita sought humanity and dis­covered that she longed for a good master, like the One who cares for all beautiful things: the sky, the stars, the earth, flowers. This was the school of the Creator that she attended after the school of her fam­ily, which she always longed for.

She wanted to be good, to obey the one who gave her joy in follow­ing his voice that enlightened her from the heart. Indeed, realizing that she could not return home, little Bakhita, lifted up her innocent face and saw God. Through baptism she discovered that what makes us free is God’s breath in us and with this freedom she wanted to free everyone: with understanding, ad­vice, gently, always giving thanks, saying: “See you in Heaven!”. The sisters she lived with experienced the humanizing power of “motherhood” in her friendship. In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, we grasped the indications of a path, that is, of a school of hu­manity, defined in the words of Ro­mano Guardini, who calls “human fullness” the possibility to live hu­manly, equally shared with all those who are in the same place (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n. 224). Three funda­mental passages: relationships are formed from an encounter which make us a people. It is the process of life that discovers happiness in being free in order to free humanity (n. 9-10, n. 114, n. 188, n. 213, n. 224); we are called to live a happy friendship as a fullness of humanity (n. 8, n. 27, n. 91-92, n. 200) and to communicate it with the humanizing power of tenderness (n. 88, n. 270- 272, n. 274, n. 284).

The choices of love experienced by Bakhita first freed her, giving her the taste of comfort regarding her lost sisters, finding herself in a situ­ation of unprecedented possibilities with regard to her loved ones. In the slave markets, where she was put up for sale, she always hoped to recognize her sister who had been kid­napped two years before her. This decentralization from herself mani­fested a creative generosity; for this was already the beginning of a path of redemption that rooted altruism in her. Various testimonies have de­picted her freely giving thanks, in order to free every creature, to edu­cate to self-giving until death. Listening to nature and her heart manifested in her the law of love that unites us all, making us capable of a social life in which rights and duties are expressed in the happy union of truth and justice, an en­counter of gift and gratitude. The choice of her freedom implied a pri­ority of affection, which made her decide not to lose what remains forever; hers was the wisdom of the small and pure of heart who see God. Bakhita knew how to value true riches and chose eternal treas­ures. The testimonies present us her filial, apostolic — which will see us meet again in Heaven — and fraternal friendship.

Everything in her reveals an inner order, a reflection of a healthy and good nature. Her body may have been devastated by cruelty, but not her soul, which was always aware of an innate dignity which only we can destroy in ourselves.

This is the secret of her inner free­dom, of her upstanding will, of her courageous choices born of a hope which does not disappoint, but sus­tains faith and charity of heart. The amazement of being so loved flowed from her heart as a river of tender­ness that comforted, in a multiplicity of expressions, with the indelible touch of her presence. The greatest “revelation” of such love was for­giveness, which was expressed with gratitude in grasping God’s Provid­ence in the traumas of the experi­ence of being kidnapped as a child and the inhuman life that followed. She felt that she was always walking in the light, guided by the One she did not know, but who she knew was present in the circumstances that brought her to Italy, allowing her to know and love Jesus who — for us who are His children — was crucified, and she was joyful to be­long to him as his bride. “I am dark but beautiful”: this is her song of love, the gift of her closeness to those who seek her as a humble sis­ter freed from the love that God has planted in our hearts.

Those who lived with her still per­mit us to meet her: smiling like a mother, serene and calm because she has no enemies while expressing her­self with affectionate tenderness. In 2018, we published the testimonies of those who actually knew Mother Bakhita. Children who are now eld­erly, told us to call her “Mother Moretta”, because “this is her name for us”. “Mother Moretta”, universal sister, who is still speaking to us. Some of the testimonies collected were written by those who had known her in the family, for having received graces from her, for having heard about her from friends. Every­one assured us that they had met her. It was then that we felt how in these years the passage from testi­mony to devotion was taking place. Indeed, there are over 30,000 faith­ful who have been coming annually to Schio to [visit] Saint Bakhita from every region of Italy and from all the continents.

*Director of the archives of the Shrine of Saint Josephme Bakhita in Schio

L’Osservatore Romano
14 February 2020, page 8