Josephine Bakhita: From Slave to Saint

Born in Sudan, Saint Josephine Bakhita was a daughter of the village chief's brother. She was later kidnapped and made a slave, before attaining freedom.

Feast Day: 8 February

Kidnapped as a child

Born in Sudan, Saint Josephine Bakhita was a daughter of the village chief’s brother. Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, who had already kidnapped her elder sister two years earlier. She was cruelly forced to walk barefoot about 960 kilometres (600 miles) 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.

During this time Josephine Bakhita was beaten (even to the extent that she couldn’t walk), abused, and salt-scarred. The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name and she took one given to her by the slavers – Bakhita, which is Arabic for “lucky”. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.

Near the end of her time as a slave, Saint Josephine came into the service of an Italian family who ended up bringing her to Europe. It was here that she began to be treated with dignity, not being beaten and so on, and where she was eventually freed.

Free at Last

Bakhita’s freedom came when she needed a temporary place to stay while her masters moved abroad without her. At the advice of their business agent on 29 November 1888, her owners left her in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. When her master returned to take her to Suakin, though, Bakhita firmly refused to leave. For a full three days her master tried to force the issue. So, the superior of the institute for baptismal candidates (Catechumenate), which Bakhita attended, complained to the Italian authorities.

On 29 November 1889 an Italian court ruled that, because Sudan had outlawed slavery before Josephine Bakhita’s birth and because Italian law did not recognize slavery, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. For the first time in her life Bakhita found herself in control of her own destiny. She chose to remain with the Canossians.

Baptism and journey to becoming a 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 Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, the future Pope Pius X.

She joined the sisters fully as a nun and was loved by all the locals for her constantly cheerful and joy-filled disposition, even in the later years of her life when she was so ill and in pain that she could only move using a wheelchair. A young student once asked Josephine 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.”

Why Josephine Bakhita is important

A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community

When I read St. Josephine Bakhita’s story, I can barely imagine what pain and suffering she went through. What’s so powerful about her story is just how much she was able to forgive and move on from, and it really encourages me to do the same.

Her life also encapsulates how freeing coming to faith can be. Through getting to know God in a personal, intimate way she was able to put an awful past behind her and live a life full of joy from that point onwards.

Famous quotes

“I have given everything to my master. He will take care of me… The best thing for us is not what we consider the best, but what the Lord wants for us!”

“The lord has loved me so much: We must love everyone… We must be compassionate!”

“When a person loves another person dearly, he desires strongly to be close to the other: Therefore, why be afraid to die?”

“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.”