She was born around 1869 in Darfur (now in western Sudan) in the village of Olgossa, west of Nyala and close to Mount Agilerei. She belonged to the prestigious Daju people; her 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 (was)”.
Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, she was seized by Arab slave traders, who had abducted her elder sister two years earlier. She was forced to walk barefoot about 960 km (600 miles) to El Obeid and was sold and bought twice before she arrived there. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was sold three more times and then given away.
Bakhita was not the name she received from her parents at birth. 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” or “fortunate”. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.
On 7 December 1893 Josephine Bakhita entered the novitiate of the Canossian Sisters and on 8 December 1896 she took her vows, welcomed by Cardinal Sarto. 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. A strong missionary drive animated her throughout her entire life – “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa”.
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. 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. Bombs did not spare Schio, but the war passed without a 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,” probably hoping that this would cheer her because Saturday is the day of the week dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. Bakhita replied, “Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady … Our Lady!” These were her last audible words.
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”.
The petitions for her canonisation began immediately, and 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 Josephine Venerable, the first step towards canonisation. On 17 May 1992, she was declared Blessed and given February 8 as her feast day. On 1 October 2000, she was canonised as 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 patron saint of Sudan and human trafficking survivors.
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. In May 1992 news of her beatification was banned by Khartoum which Pope John Paul II then personally visited only nine months later. On 10 February 1993, he solemnly honored 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.”
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.