Saint 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


Saint Josephine Bakhita is an African saint, who was born in Sudan around 1869, and died on 8 February 1947, in Italy. She was taken as a slave in her early life by Arab traders and suffered a difficult life, until her eventual freedom in Italy. There, Josephine became a nun with the Canossian Daughters of Charity and lived and worked with them for 45 years. She was declared a saint on 1 October 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

Born into a loving family

In her early years, Josephine Bakhita belonged to the Daju people and was a daughter of the village chief’s brother. She had six siblings – three brothers and three sisters – and was part of a loving family. She said of her early life, “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering.” But all that was about to change…

Kidnapped as a child

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.

Enduring torture

During this time Josephine Bakhita was beaten (even to the extent that she couldn’t walk), abused, and salt-scarred. She says of the time, “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.”

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.

Italians to the rescue

Near the end of her time as a slave, in 1883, 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 and future Pope Pius X.

Saint Josephine Bakhita decided to join the Canossian Sisters as a novitiate on 7 December 1893 and three years later, on 8 December 1896, took her vows.

Loved by the Italian people

Josephine 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.

Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known. Josephine’s special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order and the first publication of her story ‘Storia Meravigliosa’ in 1931 made her famous throughout Italy.

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.”

Final years

Her last years were marked by pain and sickness. She used a wheelchair, but she retained her cheerfulness. If asked how she was, she would always smile and answer: “As the Master desires.”

Josephine died on 8 February 1947. For three days, her body lay on display while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects. But death marked the beginning of her next journey…

Journey to sainthood

The petitions for Josphine Bakhita’s canonisation began immediately, with the process officially commenced by Pope John XXIII in 1959, only twelve years after her death.

On 1 December 1978, Pope John Paul II declared her Venerable. She was declared Blessed on 17 May 1992 and given her 8 February feast day. Finally, on 1 October 2000, she was canonised and became Saint Josephine Bakhita.

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.”