The Great Saints of Africa

Africa was the home of St. Augustine, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Moses the Ethiopian and St. Josephine Bakhita.

St. Josephine Bakhita
St. Josephine Bakhita (photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nov. 13 was the birthday of St. Augustine of Hippo. His birthday, mind you, not his feast day (that falls on Aug. 28). Usually when we speak of Augustine we think of the long years he spent away from the Catholic Church, his final conversion thanks to his mother’s prayers (although St. Monica wasn’t above nagging him from time to time), and the eloquent preaching of the great St. Ambrose. Thanks to Monica and Ambrose and the grace of God, of course, Augustine went on to become a priest, a bishop, and a theologian second only to St. Paul the Apostle.

What gets left out is Augustine’s personality, his background, where his family came from and who were the people he knew. Augustine was African. His mother was a Berber, a member of an ethnic group that dominated and still dominates a large stretch of North Africa. The family lived in the city of Thagaste, in the Roman province of Numidia (now Algeria). Unlike other cities in the empire, Thagaste was not colonized by Romans from Italy, it’s inhabitants were Berbers who had adopted Roman ways.

North Africa was home to Augustine. For a brief period he lived in Milan in northern Italy where he taught at an academy. But after his baptism, he left his friend Ambrose and went back to his own country.

Going off on this Augustinian tangent got me thinking about other African saints, and they make up an interesting list.

St. Mark the Evangelist carried the faith to Egypt around the year A.D. 49. He settled in Alexandria, and the city would become one of the largest Christian communities in North Africa. In the recurring waves of Roman persecution of the Church, countless Alexandrian Christians suffered martyrdom. Among them was St. Apollonia. In 249, her bishop, Dionysius, wrote an account of her death. A pagan mob was rampaging through the city, attacking Christians in the street, dragging from their homes, and throwing them in a huge bonfire outside the town. The rioters seized Apollonia, whom Bishop Dionysius described as “a good old lady.” As they forced her to the bonfire, they beat her so savagely they broke or knocked out all her teeth. For this reason, St. Apollonia is venerated as the patron of dentists and is invoked against toothache.

Did you know monasticism was born in the Egyptian desert? When St. Anthony (251-356) was a young man, Christians who desired a life of solitude, silence, and prayer went into the desert alone. Anthony believed it would be healthier and more productive to the growth of the spiritual life if such men lived, and worked, and prayed in a community. So he founded the first monastery. Incredibly, the monastery Anthony established 1700 years ago is still in existence, and flourishing.

An unexpected beneficiary of the hospitality of monks was a man we know as St. Moses the Ethiopian (330-405). He was a tall, powerfully built young man with frightening facial features. He was a slave, but just having him around made his master so ill-at-ease that he freed Moses.

Moses met up with some bandits, and in time became their chief. For years they terrorized travelers, caravans, even detachments of soldiers. Finally the governor sent out an army to destroy Moses and his crew. The bandits scattered. Moses came upon a monastery and asked for shelter. One look at him and the monks knew this was not a typical pilgrim. But they made him welcome. In time, the monks’ kindness won over Moses. He repented, swore never to commit another act of violence, and eventually joined the community.

He kept his vow of non-violence. When bandits—not his old band--attacked the monastery, Moses would not lift his hand to defend himself, and so he was cut down with his brother monks.

Once European nations began to colonize sub-Saharan Africa, Catholic missionary fathers, brothers, and sisters brought the faith to people who had never heard of Christianity. The first converts often were suspected by their own people as having become agents of the imperialists. Converts were also targets because they gave up tribal practices that violated their new-found faith. In Uganda in 1886, a local king tried to force 22 young men and teenage boys, who served as pages in the king’s household, to serve in his male harem. When they refused, the king had all 22 arrested. Charles Lwanga, who had been baptized only a year earlier, became their spokesman because he was the head of the royal pages. All 22 were burned alive.

In 1964, Blessed Pope Paul VI canonized the 22 Martyrs of Uganda, and in 1969, he made a pilgrimage to Uganda—the first pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa—to pray at the shrine of the new martyr-saints.

Finally, a bit closer to own time, is St. Josephine Bakhita (1868-1947). She was born in Sudan. We don’t know what name her family gave her because when she was about 9 years old, Arab slavers kidnapped her and sold her. She never saw her family again.

A slave trader gave her the name Bakhita, which means “lucky.” She was sold and resold until when she was about 15, she was purchased by an Italian consul who freed her. When he returned to Italy in 1885, he invited Bahkita to come along. In Italy she found work taking care of a little girl. She would escort the child to a convent where the nuns taught children the catechism to prepare them for First Communion. Bakhita heard some of what the children were being taught, and it made an impression on her. She asked the nuns to instruct her, too.

On Jan. 9, 1890, Bakhita was baptized, received her First Communion, and was confirmed, all on the same day, with all the ceremonies being performed by the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto—better known as the future Pope St. Pius X.

Bahkita, now known as Josephine, joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Verona, Italy. She worked as a cook and as the convent doorkeeper. As was the case with soon-to-be-Blessed Solanus Casey, Sister Josephine had a gift for comforting the sick and those in sorrow, and assisting the poor. Visitors to the convent door said her prayers brought about miracles.

On her deathbed, Sister Josephine lapsed into delirium and thought she was a slave again. She kept repeating, “Please, the chains are so tight. Please loosen them.”

Pope St. John Paul II canonized Josephine in 2000. While she joins rank upon rank of African saints, she is the only saint of the Catholic Church from Sudan.