St. Josephine Bakhita Church in Mississauga is heading toward a May opening. The parish, named after the African-born saint, has been operating from a local high school for 10 years. Photo courtesy St. Josephine Bakhita Church

St. Josephine Bakhita puts fresh face on parish diversity

  • February 8, 2018
From slavery to sainthood, the story of St. Josephine Bakhita is one of resilience and faith.

Those two virtues have also been exhibited by the people of a parish in Mississauga, Ont., which has taken the saint’s name.

It is the only parish in Canada named after of the African-born St. Josephine Bakhita and one of few to be named after a visible minority. This month marks a time of celebration for parishioners, whose namesake’s feast day falls on Feb. 8, appropriately during Black History Month in Canada.

The parish will be in a celebratory mood again in just three more months. After 10 years of holding Mass in a local high school, the parish will finally have a new church to call home.

“We became a parish in 2008 but have been worshipping at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School,” said Fr. Mark Villanueva, the pastor at St. Josephine’s. “Our parish has finally been able to construct a church that we will be holding Mass in from now on.”

St Josephine BakhitaSt. Josephine Bakhita was born in Darfur, Sudan in 1869. After being kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child, she spent 13 years as a slave in then Arab-occupied southern Sudan. She was bought and sold many times until being freed by an Italian consul and brought to Italy, where she lived with the Canossian Sisters in Venice.

After being educated in the Catholic faith, she converted and joined the Canossian order. She was canonized in 2000 and is the patron saint of Sudan.

Her story has been instrumental in Villanueva’s ministry.

“When I was still a seminarian, I came upon a book on Bakhita. She was not a saint yet but I was intrigued by her story. There are many things we can learn from her experience — she was always aware of a presence in her life that protected her despite many of the hardships she went through.”

Villanueva, who was born in the Philippines, says this representation is important— especially in diverse communities like Mississauga where 58 per cent of the population identifies as a minority.

“We live in a multicultural society, but if you look at our parishes, they are mostly named after European saints,” said Villanueva, who proposed the name of St. Josephine Bakhita to then Archbishop Thomas Collins in 2008. “I thought it would be good to have someone from Sudan.”

St. Josephine Bakhita will open its doors to parishioners on May 2 with a Mass and solemn dedication from Cardinal Collins.

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