St. Josephine Bakhita, Virgin
The little girl had never worn a dress until the day two scowling men appeared in the fields, blocking her path and holding a knife to her side, kidnapping her much as one might snatch a hen from its coop. The day when her life turned into a nightmare, that terrified 9-year-old girl forgot everything, even her name and the names of her parents, with whom she had had a happy life.
Arab slave merchants took care, not to clothe her, but to give her a new name. “Bakhita,” they called her, Arabic for “fortunate one,” a horrible joke of a name for the child born in 1869 in a village of Darfur, in South Sudan. She became human merchandise passed from hand to hand in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. One day, while serving her master, a Turkish general, she was “tattooed” with 114 strokes of a knife, the wounds covered in salt so that the scars would remain visible.
Bakhita survived, and one day, a ray of light entered her hell. Callisto Legnami, the Italian Vice-Consul, bought her from some traffickers at Khartoum. Bakhita put on a dress for the first time and entered a house. The door closed behind her on ten years of unspeakable brutality. The respite lasted for two years when the Italian functionary, who treated her kindly, was obliged to return to Italy because of the Mahdist wars in Sudan. Bakhita remembered the moment: “I dared to ask him to take me with him to Italy.” Callisto Legnami agreed, and in 1884, Bakhita landed in the country where an unimagined destiny awaited the former slave. She became the nanny of Alice, the daughter of the Michieli family, who were friends of the Legnamis and lived in Zianigo, near Mirano in the province of Veneto.
The “little brown sister”
In 1888, the couple she worked for had to leave for Africa, and for nine months, Bakhita and Alice were left in the care of the Canossian Sisters of Venice. Now that her body was clothed, Bakhita began to clothe her soul. She came to know Jesus, learned the faith, and on January 9, 1890 she received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion from the Patriarch of Venice, along with the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata (the latter is the Italian translation of the Arabic “Bakhita”). In 1893 she entered the novitiate of the Canossian Sisters. Three years later she professed her vows and spent the following 45 years as the cook, sacristan, and especially, the doorkeeper of the convent at Schio. There she got to know the people of the town and the people in turn learned to appreciate the gentle smile, the goodness and faith of the moretta, the “little brown sister,” while the children wanted to taste this “sister made of chocolate.”
“I would kiss their hands…”
All Schio was in mourning when Sr. Josephine Bakhita died of pneumonia on February 8, 1947. Her life had truly become “fortunate,” as she said herself: “If I were to meet those men who abducted me, or even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for it that hadn’t happened, I would not be a Christian and a religious today.”