Sisters take part in diocese’s initial Josephine Bakhita Mass

More than a dozen Ursuline Sisters were in attendance on Feb. 8, 2022, for the Diocese of Owensboro’s first Memorial Mass for Saint Josephine Bakhita, a day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking.

Sisters and others gathered in St. Stephen Cathedral on the feast day of Saint Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking victims. Josephine Bakhita was born in the Darfur region of Sudan in 1869. As a child she was kidnapped and sold multiple times to slave traders. She was given the name “Bakhita” by her traffickers – Arabic for “lucky” – who tortured and branded her. After years of slavery in Africa, she was taken to Italy to serve as a nanny. There, she met the Canossian Sisters and learned about the Catholic faith. She was baptized Josephine Margaret.

When she refused to return to the Sudan, the Italian courts ruled she could remain, since slavery was illegal in Italy. She decided to enter the Canossian community, and made her profession in 1896. She was missioned to northern Italy, where she dedicated her life to assisting her community and teaching others to love God. She died in 1947 and was canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

The Diocese of Owensboro offices of Worship and Music often coordinate with other diocesan offices to offer annual opportunities for prayer in relation to their purpose, said Lauren Johnson, co-coordinator of the Office of Worship. For example, there is a Marriage Anniversary Mass for the Family Life Office and a Sophia Awards Mass for the Stewardship Office.

In May 2021, a satellite office of the Bakhita Empowerment Initiative opened in the Diocese of Owensboro. The initiative is part of Catholic Charities of Louisville, and seeks to educate the community about human trafficking and provide direct assistance to victims. Heidi Reyes-Taylor is the case manager in the Owensboro office.

“This is the first year that we have had a case manager for human trafficking stationed in this diocese,” Johnson said. “After speaking with Heidi about the work she is doing, we wanted to extend our prayers as a diocese to the cause of her work. We are thinking this will be an annual Mass.”

Reyes-Taylor delivered the first reading at the Mass – in Spanish – and spoke after Bishop William Medley’s homily.

“Many cases we see are not children,” she said. “We see abusers who are very strategic in exploiting the workers. We have one case here where a person was working 80 hours a week in the hot sun, with no water breaks. For people to speak up is very terrifying,” Reyes-Taylor said.

Bishop Medley invited the Ursuline Sisters to the Mass because he knows human trafficking is close to the Sisters’ hearts. In 2007, the Ursuline Sisters were instrumental in pushing for a Kentucky law to outlaw human trafficking. While a federal law existed previously, the state law allows local law enforcement to act more quickly when reports of trafficking arise. A total of 17 Ursuline Sisters participated in the 6 p.m. Mass.

The Mass began with an African hymn performed by the Congolese choir from Holy Spirit Church in Bowling Green – “Wimbo Wa Ufunguo” – which means “Come, let us enter the house of God with praise and rejoicing!” Cantors Heather Greene and Jacob Hein, both music ministers in Owensboro, led the English singing of “As We Gather at Your Table.”

Bishop Medley spoke about the sin of racism as he discussed Saint Josephine, noting that her story is still quite recent – she was born just a few years before Bishop Medley’s grandparents. As he discussed her kidnapping and torture, he said we are surely shocked that this could happen, but “it was common in our country, in our state and in the Catholic Church.”

The bishop said racism is prevalent today in more subtle ways, “like saying that we shouldn’t talk about racism in our schools.”

While talk of racism can be depressing, Bishop Medley said, there is evidence of progress. Earlier in the day he went to Louisville for the announcement of Kentucky’s new archbishop, Bishop Shelton Fabre, a man of African descent now leading the Catholics in Kentucky.

Here are some photos from the Mass.