Only on the surface do these saintly women seem complete opposites: one white, one black; one free, one a slave; one wealthy, one poor. In their hearts and souls, they were spiritual sisters.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born into a socially prominent family in New York City in 1774.
Almost a century later, Arab slave traders ended a Daju girl’s peaceful agrarian life in Darfur by kidnapping her, stripping her of her tribal name, and perversely calling her Bakhita, after an Arabic word meaning “blessed.”
From these vastly distinct backgrounds sprang two Catholic converts, saints, and visionaries of feminine genius: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose pioneering religious community helped change the face and course of Catholic education and ministry to the poor and suffering in the United States, and St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Pope John Paul II’s “Universal Sister” whose slavery in Sudan, self-won release, and Italian religious life sparked deep affection in her native African continent and around the world.
Mother Seton’s adult life spanned a marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and life as a foundress and consecrated religious woman. Her family eventually grew from her own five biological children to include thousands of Catholic Sisters, a fullness that hinged on her anguished conversion from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism. But were it not for her voluminous correspondence and the rich web of testimonies and artifacts issuing from her historically notable, upper-class community, the memory of her appealing personality and elegant voice—well-educated, witty, and articulate—might have been swallowed up in genteel hagiography.
Bakhita’s legacy certainly suffers from this kind of well-meaning but inaccurate treatment: as an illiterate, anonymous female slave with limited personal writings and, therefore, only a barebones historical record, there’s a sense that her fortitude is overlaid by Catholic lay historians’ “good manners.” She blesses, she listens, she attends, she silently assents to grave personal suffering and injustice in slavery and peacefully endures the violence of two World Wars.
To contemporary readers, the once-humorous anecdotes of racial misunderstandings and jabs—the little Italian child who comes to the convent and licks St. Bakhita’s hand, assuming she is made of chocolate; the blithe gawkers bent on glimpsing the only African sister, or the jokes about her dark, presumably dirty skin—make us cringe at their unconscious racism. But it is precisely in these anecdotes that we glimpse Bakhita’s holy forbearance and remarkable sanctity.
Mother Seton longed for the contemplative life to which her temperament was naturally suited, but her responsibilities as a foundress and biological mother made solitude a rare gift.
Meanwhile, St. Bakhita’s humble religious life as a portress, servant, companion, and consoler gave her wells of quiet in which to commune with her Paron: the Master whose sacrificial love first redeemed her and then emboldened her to petition Italian religious and civil authorities for freedom from her slaveholders.
Mother Seton’s busy spiritual motherhood effervesced in spiritual writings penned for her religious daughters, family, and friends; set side-by-side with the briefly sketched scenes and silences of St. Bakhita’s life, we see these two very different women describing similar arcs of virtue.
In her Instruction on Charity, Mother Seton exhorted her spiritual daughters that the Lord’s charity had three qualities they should each adopt: gentleness, benevolence, and universality—an enduring openness to whoever might approach or assail them.
These three qualities are deeply present in St. Bakhita’s famous, forthright proclamation that if she were to see the slave traders and torturers of her early life, she would kneel down and kiss their hands: “because if that had not happened, I would not be a Christian or a religious today.”
In a similar spirit, Elizabeth Seton wrote:
“O my Soul, there is a Heaven! There is a Savior! There is a pure and perfect felicity under the shadow of his wings. There is rest for our labors, peace from our enemies, freedom from our Sins. There we shall be always joyful—always beholding the presence of Him, who has purchased and prepared us for this unutterable glory.”
In the great anticipation of seeing her Paron and being reunited with her family, the elderly St. Bakhita spoke so frequently of heaven’s consolations that a priest gently teased her about her presumption. She answered with childlike purity of heart that the Paron “will put me where he wants me to be. When I am with him and where he wants me to be, then all will be well.”
In her “Meditation on the Communion of the Cross,” Mother Seton wrote of suffering, poverty, and shame:
“In receiving [Christ’s] cross we are not to look at what it is made of, that is, on the nature of our sufferings, it being a mystery. We are to look only at the interior virtue, not the exterior form. Eternal life is hidden under it, and when it comes in the shape of poverty, it conceals eternal treasures…”
While Elizabeth Seton’s life included times of wealth and economic precariousness, St. Bakhita’s life was an unbroken stretch of privation, from her beginnings as a slave to her Order’s rule’s of poverty.
Roberto Italo Zanini, Bakhita’s modern biographer, recalls that in the tiny, sunlit cell where the saint spent her last days, the only personal effects were the neat detritus of a very poor life: a tiny metal tree trimmed with colored beads, a crumpled pillow, and a plain bed and rough wheelchair—the “crosses” where the saint endured her final sufferings. As Zanini watched pilgrims come and go, he noticed their habit of slipping little notes under the pillow. When the room was empty, he briefly picked it up and saw hundreds of envelopes, family photos, postcards, and letters to St. Bakhita, many asking for her intercession and help, and one that simply said: “thank you”.
In giving their lives, strength, and sufferings for their daughters and sisters, sons and brothers, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Josephone Bakhita share fame as exemplary spiritual women united in the life, strength, and suffering of their Beloved Lord.
LAURA BRAMON HASSAN is a writer and international development expert based in Washington, DC, where she leads Philomena Project, a global advocacy group addressing child marriage in Canon Law and Catholic culture.
Image: CC BY-NC 2.0