Ursulines of the Roman Union

There’s a move under way in Oregon (USA) to seek Vatican approval for a patron saint of human trafficking and slavery victims.

St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave-turned-nun, is the ideal saint for people whose labor and bodies are being exploited, says Brian Willis. He’s a member of St. Mary Cathedral in Portland who has worked for years to help women who have been forced into the sex trade.  Trafficking, despite the name, does not require the crossing of international borders. “You can be born and raised and live in the same house and be a trafficking victim,” says Willis. “It is about exploitation.”

Global Health Promise, an organization Willis founded in 2007, protects women and their children from the impacts of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation. Global Health Promise is working on establishing shelters for children in Nepal, plus a drop-in center at the Downtown Chapel in Portland (Oregon, USA).  Willis also works with End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, a group dedicated to combating sexual exploitation and trafficking of youth, in the U.S.

Also in Portland, Catholic Charities receives grants to work with foreign-born human trafficking victims, often young women sold as maids or prostitutes.  Now, Willis and several church leaders have teamed up to suggest to the Vatican that the cause of victims would benefit from the naming of a patron saint.

Also in Portland, Catholic Charities receives grants to work with foreign-born human trafficking victims, often young women sold as maids or prostitutes.  Now, Willis and several church leaders have teamed up to suggest to the Vatican that the cause of victims would benefit from the naming of a patron saint.

“Her case is pertinent today,” says Willis, explaining that slavery has endured since the days of St. Josephine, who was born about 1869.  In addition to the patron saint designation, Willis is hoping that Feb. 8 — St. Josephine’s feast day — becomes an annual day of prayer for victims of human trafficking and slavery.

Born in the Darfur region of southern Sudan, St. Josephine was kidnapped at 7, sold into slavery and given the name Bakhita, which means, ironically, “fortunate.” She was re-sold several times and was handled brutally. In 1883, the Italian consul in Khartoum bought her. Unlike her former owners, he did not use the lash and treated her with respect. Two years later, the consul took Bakhita to Italy and gave her to his friend, who put her to work as a babysitter for a daughter. The young slave accompanied the daughter to boarding school in Venice, run by the Canossian Daughters of Charity.

It was there that Bakhita came to know about God, whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who he was” since she was a child.  “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage,” she wrote in her autobiography. She was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church in 1890, taking the name Josephine. When the family planned to move back to Africa and wanted to take Josephine with them, the future saint refused to go. During an ensuing court case, the Canossian sisters and the patriarch of Venice intervened on Josephine’s behalf. The judge concluded that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Josephine was free.

She entered the Canossian Sisters in 1893 and made her profession three years later. In 1902, she was transferred to the city of Schio, near Verona, where she assisted her religious community through cooking, sewing, embroidery and welcoming visitors at the door. She soon became well loved by the children attending the sisters’ school and the local citizens. She once said, “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”

As she grew older she experienced long, painful years of sickness. But she continued to witness to faith, goodness and Christian hope. After flashbacks when she imagined she was still wrapped in the chains of slavery, she died in 1947 at the Canossian convent in Schio. Her last words were, “Our Lady! Our Lady!”

The first steps toward her beatification began in 1959. She was beatified in 1992 and canonized eight years later. Archbishop John Vlazny and Willis have written about the patron saint idea in letters to the papal nuncio of the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi. The letters then go on to the Vatican. Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner presided at a Feb. 8 cathedral prayer service for human trafficking and slavery victims. That’s the feast day of St. Josephine.

Bishop Steiner has heard about the saint for years. That’s because he has corresponded with an Oregon State Penitentiary death row inmate who has decided to spend what time he has left spreading word about Josephine and her powerful story of liberation.  “She really is a person of hope for today,” says Bishop Steiner, adding that the patron saint suggestion is a good one. “She realized her real master was Jesus.” Bishop Steiner says he thinks of St. Josephine often.

Recent popes have held St. Josephine up as a key figure for our times.  During his homily at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square in 2000, Pope John Paul II said that in St. Josephine Bakhita, “We find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence, and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.”

In his 2007 encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict called her an example of the kind of hope that is redemption. To encounter and know God in the world is to receive hope, the pope wrote, describing St. Josephine’s conversion to Christianity when she was in Venice.

“Now she had ‘hope’ — no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this love,’” Pope Benedict wrote. “Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed,’ no longer a slave, but a free child of God.” The Canossian Daughters of Charity, with a U.S. motherhouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, support the idea of making St. Josephine a patron saint. A lay Canossian in Salem also likes the proposal, saying it would be a “comfort and hope” to people who are exploited.  “St. Josephine Bakhita exemplifies the beatitudes,” says Susan Wilson, a registered nurse and member of St. Joseph Parish.  Wilson, who has for a year been dedicated to living Canossian life in the world, was drawn to the order when she read about St. Josephine in the Sentinel. She has prayed to the saint for help with troubled young men she knows.  “Her heroic virtues were not manifested for the world to see,” Wilson says, “but in a humble daily life of little value in people’s eyes, but of immense value before God.”