Mother Josephine Bakhita: a saint for all seasons


Among my favorite memories of the diocesan Great Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Rome in 2000 was being taken seriously by the Daughters of St. Paul in the Vatican Press Office located just off St. Peter’s Square.

Every visit was a treat as the sisters always offered warm greetings even though I was just a very, very minor cog in the great wheel of the international press corps. They made sure that I had walked away with every bit of printed material they could cram into  eager hands.

At the end of the trip, this resulted in a travel bag  jammed with probably 500 pages of Vatican press releases – each precious in my eyes because, well, they had actually come from Vatican press headquarters.

On the flight home, the releases made for good reading. Especially compelling was the voluminous amount of copy on the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, canonized Oct. 1 by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s only days before.

St. Josephine Bakhita

 Saint Josephine Bakhita emerged as a woman of “exquisite goodness” who overcame the unspeakable horrors of slavery that included forced conversion to Islam in her native Sudan and ritual disfigurement.

Making her way to Italy through the kindness of her fourth “owner” – an Italian family who valued her as a person rather than as a commodity — she secured her freedom under Italian law and went on to enter religious life.

She consecrated herself  to God on December 8, 1896, becoming a Daughter of Charity in the Institute of St. Magdalane of Canossa in Venice.

She remained in Venice  until 1902 when she was transferred to Schio, a small and beautiful mountain town in the northern Italian region of Vicenza.

There, the shy and retiring Sister Josephine settled into community life, preferring household work as portress and cook to all other duties. It’s recorded that cooking for people gave her such delight that she took special care to make dishes they would really enjoy.

Over the 45 years she dwelled in Schio, her special charisma and sanctity were noticed by her order and in 1935, she was instructed to publish her memoirs and go on a speaking tour which made her famous throughout Italy.

For the next year she shared her witness of faith with rapt audiences and then returned to the beloved household in the small town she loved where the townspeople, who loved her in return, turned out in vast numbers to celebrate her golden jubilee.

After a long illness, she died on Feb. 8, 1947 at the Canossian Convent attended by the sisters and those same adoring townspeople who held vigil outside the convent as she died, waked her with great respect and immediately began calling for her canonization.

The process began only 12 years later in 1959 and continued at an expeditious pace. Pope Paul VI declared her Venerable on Dec. 1, 1978. Pope John Paul II declared her Blessed on May 17, 1992 and fixed Feb. 8 as her feast day. On Oct. 1, 2000, as mentioned above, he canonized her.

Because of her love of cooking, she’s on the list  of “Kitchen Saints” I started compiling a few months back headed by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Anne who are frequently depicted in art performing homely tasks.

Though searches for dishes St. Josephine Bakhita actually did cook were fruitless, a bit of historical research yielded recipes she might have prepared.

Among these are an old recipe for a farmer’s soup called Minestra de Farina Zala and Tagliatelle with peas both adapted from posts by Kyle Phillips at About.com

Minestra de Farina Zala

Ingredients: 5 cups whole milk; 3/4 cup finely ground cornmeal; 1/4 cup butter; sugar, salt and pepper to taste.

Directions: heat the milk in a pot over low heat and when it comes to a boil, add the cornmeal slowly in a fine stream, stirring steadily. Simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally (a wooden spoon is the best to use) until the texture becomes creamy. Remove from the fire and stir in the butter, salt then add pepper, sugar and salt to taste.

Tagliatelle with Peas

Ingredients: 1 pound tagliatelle; 1 pound shelled fresh or frozen peas; beef or chicken broth for flavoring; 1 large sweet onion, minced; 1 minced clove garlic; unsalted butter; 2 ounces minced pancetta or fatty proscuitto; olive oil; fresh Italian parsley for garnish; grated Romano cheese, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Directions: If using frozen peas, thaw them. If using fresh peas, shell them and wash them. Finely mince the pancetta or prosicutto, oinion and garlic and sautee the mix in three tablespoons of butter and three tablespoons of olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add the peas, mix gently and simmer for 15 minutes adding a few tablespoons of broth now and then to keep the pot moist. When the peas are cooked, adjust the seasonings.

Meanwhile, bring the pasta water to a boil, salt it and cook the tagliatelle according to package directions. Drain it and turn it out into a large pasta bowl, add the pea mixture, stir in a tablespoon of butter, top with grated cheese and parsley and serve at once.

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