sr. Elisabetta Venturini

Elisabetta Venturini:
The last to survive the Mahdia and one of our first martyrs.

During the imprisonment, “the one who suffered the most, I believe was Sr Venturini”..
(Teresa Grigolini)

In Khartoum, sixty six years ago on 22nd July, the last of the Comboni Sisters who had lived through the time of the Mahdia died. The Mahdia was an Islamic uprising which had shed much blood and caused much suffering to thousands of people in Sudan between 1881 and 1898. “The day of her death”, we read in number 5 of the Congregation’s magazine “Raggio”, “the Government of Sudan notified the English Government of her death, she was the last of those who had lived in Khartoum at the time of General Gordon. From London, by radio, the sad news was broadcast to the world in various languages”.

In truth, more than “sad” the news was “good” because Bettina, her nickname, was finally united with the companions who had gone before her and could now enjoy with them the Peace which no war could disturb. She had almost had warning of her death: the evening before as the annals record: “we finished with a lively recreation during which Sr Bettina sang some of the verses which Mgr Comboni would sing while they rode on camels to reach Sudan. It was so unusual for us to hear her singing.” She was right in this, after all that had happened to her it was not easy to see Bettina smile. “I never saw her smile or laugh” another sister who knew her after the imprisonment noted. “She gave the impression of someone always caught up in the past. On occasion she might say something about those sad times, but then she would cut it short and say: let’s leave it at that.”

It had all begun for Bettina and her sisters when the city of E-Obeid, under attack, had been forced to surrender to the Mahdi, a young muslim “prophet”, who in 1881 proclaimed himself the “one guided” by Allah to free Sudan from foreign powers and to give the Islamic world the ancient purity of its faith and culture. The young missionary sisters were taken prisoner and urged many times, with threats, violence and brutality, to embrace Islam. They resisted with all their strength. The day it was decided to separate them to try to break down their resistance, Bettina had been “entrusted” – as she herself described it in her memoirs, to the Caliph of Dinar, one of the most brutal of the officials.

When the camp of the Mahdi was moved to El-Obeid in order to be nearer to Khartoum to attack it, the Caliph went with it and all his servants and all his women slaves. “Among these” – Bettina noted in one of her most significant pages – “was Sister Venturini, a slave, on foot like the others. When the camp reached Rahah, the first stop on the journey, she was questioned again. To her no, an absolute no, more furious with her than ever, they invented other horrific kinds of torture, for her. One was to whip the soles of her feet day after day, so that all her toe nails fell out. Since she could not walk, she was then carried and abandoned behind a house like a dog, left on the ground naked. Then one morning, tired of having her there when she would not give in, they put a rope around her neck and pulled her here and there in front of a jeering crowd, to see if that would break her spirit. But this too failed, she would not give in. More furious still at her stubbornness and strength, they tied her to a tree and beat her for hours until they gave her up for dead.”

How Bettina managed to survive such tortures/inhuman treatment, remains a mystery. It was important for her and for the others caught up in the Mahdia, to have witnessed in this way, right to the end, their faithfulness to the missionary vocation. They thus contributed in an exceptional way with their blood and tears to prepare the ground for the rebirth of Christianity in Sudan.