Saint who was former slave suggested as patron of trafficking victims

By Ed Langlois/Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — There’s a move under way 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, said Brian Willis, a Portland Catholic who has worked for years to help women who have been forced into the sex trade.

Trafficking does not require the crossing of international borders, because “you can be born and raised and live in the same house and be a trafficking victim,” said Willis, a member of St. Mary Cathedral in Portland. “It is about exploitation.”

Global Health Promise, an organization Willis founded in 2007, protects women and their children from the impact of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation. Global Health Promise is working on establishing shelters for children in Nepal, plus a drop-in center at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in downtown Portland.

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.

Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny and Willis have written letters to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, papal nuncio to the United States, suggesting that the cause of trafficking victims would benefit from the naming of a patron saint. The letters will then be sent on to the Vatican.

Willis told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese, that he also hopes Feb. 8 — St. Josephine’s feast day — becomes an annual day of prayer for victims of human trafficking and slavery.

“Her case is pertinent today,” said Willis, because slavery still endures.

Born to a wealthy Sudanese family in 1869, she was kidnapped by slave traders and given the Arabic name Bakhita by her captors. Ironically, the name means “fortunate.” She was sold several times and was handled brutally. She managed to escape once, but was captured and sold again.

In 1883, the Italian consul in Khartoum bought Bakhita. Two years later he took her to Italy and gave her as a present to a friend, Augusto Michieli. Bakhita worked as the family’s nanny and, with the family’s daughter, began taking religious education classes taught by the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Venice.

In 1890 she joined the Catholic Church and took the name Josephine. The family tried to take Josephine back to Africa, but an Italian court ruled that she was free since slavery was illegal in Italy. Three years after joining the church she entered the Canossian Daughters’ novitiate and spent the rest of her life as a nun. She served her order as a cook, seamstress and doorkeeper.

She died on Feb. 8, 1947, at the age of 78. Her canonization in October 2000 made her the first Sudanese saint.

During his homily at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II said that in St. Josephine Bakhita, “we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation.”

Lay Canossian Susan Wilson, a registered nurse and member of St. Joseph Parish in Salem, said it would be a “comfort and hope” to people who are exploited if the Vatican were to declare her their patron saint.

“St. Josephine Bakhita exemplifies the beatitudes,” Wilson said.

“Her heroic virtues were not manifested for the world to see, but in a humble daily life of little value in people’s eyes, but of immense value before God,” she said.

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