Today we commemorate the repose of one of the North American saints, St. Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn.
Saint Raphael used to describe himself: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.”
Our holy Father Raphael was born in Syria in 1860 to pious Orthodox parents. On the Feast of Theophany in 1861, he was baptized with the name Rafla, and the child attended elementary school, where he did very well. In 1874 it appeared that his father would no longer be able to afford his son’s tuition. Fortunately, help came from Deacon Athanasius Atallah (later Metropolitan of Homs), who recommended to Patriarch Hierotheus of Antioch that Rafla be accepted as a student of the Patriarchate in preparation for the priesthood.In 1887 he was appointed as a teacher of Arabic and Turkish. On March 28, 1879 he was tonsured as a monk by Patriarch Hierotheus, and served as His Beatitude’s personal attendant.
In 1840 he was selected to study on scholarship at the School of Theology at Halki, in Greece. On December 8, 1885, he was ordained to the diaconate at the school chapel. In July of 1886, the young deacon received his Certificate of Theology, and returned to his homeland in the hope of serving the Church there. Patriarch Gerasimus of Antioch was impressed with Deacon Raphael, and often took him along on his pastoral visitations of his parishes. When His Beatitude could not be present, Deacon Raphael was asked to preach the Word of God to the people.
He did his graduate studies in Russia, at the Theological Academy of Kyiv, promising to return and serve as the Patriarch’s Russian-language secretary. In 1889 Patriarch Gerasimus ordered the young deacon to take over as head of the Antiochian representation church in Moscow. He was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop SYLVESTER, the rector of the Academy, at the request of Patriarch Gerasimus. A month later, he was raised to the rank of archimandrite by Metropolitan IOANNIKII of Moscow, and was confirmed as head of the Antiochian representation church.
When Patriarch Gerasimus resigned in order to accept the See of Jerusalem, Archimandrite Raphael regarded this as an opportunity to free the Church of Antioch from its domination by foreign hierarchs. Burning with love for the Church of Antioch, and wishing to restore the administration of the church to its own native clergy and people, Archimandrite Raphael began a campaign of writing letters to some Antiochian bishops and influential laymen. He also wrote articles in the Russian press, drawing attention to the plight of Antioch. His courageous efforts did not meet with success however. In November of 1891 Metropolitan SPYRIDON, a Greek Cypriot, was elected as Patriarch of Antioch. Archimandrite Raphael refused to commemorate the new Patriarch during services at the representation church. As a result, he was suspended from his priestly functions by Patriarch SPYRIDON. Saint Raphael accepted his suspension, but continued to write articles in Russian newspapers in defense of the Antiochian cause.
Eventually, Patriarch SPYRIDON wrote to the Assistant Overprocurator of Russia, a friend of Saint Raphael’s, asking him to persuade Father Raphael to ask for the Patriarch’s forgiveness. He did so, and the suspension was lifted. Saint Raphael was allowed to transfer from the jurisdiction of Antioch to the Church of Russia, and to remain there. He went to Kazan, taking a position as instructor in Arabic studies at the theological academy. He remained there until 1895 when he was invited by the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society of New York to come to that city to be the pastor of the Arab Orthodox community.
In the summer of 1896, Saint Raphael undertook the first of several pastoral journeys across North America. He visited thirty cities between New York and San Francisco, seeking out the Master’s lost sheep in cities, towns, and on isolated farms. He fed the spiritually hungry people with the Word of God in each place where he stopped. He performed marriages, baptisms, heard confessions, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the homes of the faithful where there was no church building. On his second trip in 1898, he became convinced of the need for Arabic-speaking priests to serve in the new churches he had established. When he returned to New York, he made a report to Bishop NICHOLAS expressing these concerns. With Bishop NICHOLAS’s blessing Saint Raphael was able to bring qualified priests from Syria. He also sought out educated laymen whom he could recommend for ordination. The Church also united those of diverse Orthodox backgrounds – Russians, Slavs, Syro-Arabs, and Greeks – under the omophorion of the Russian Archbishop.
In 1903, the Holy Synod of Russia unanimously elected Archimandrite Raphael to be the second vicar Bishop of Brooklyn while retaining him as head of the Syro-Arab Orthodox Mission in North America. Father Innocent Pustynsky was consecrated as Bishop Tikhon’s first auxiliary bishop at Saint Petersburg’s cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. On the third Sunday of Lent in 1904, Saint Raphael became the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil. Bishop Tikhon and Bishop Innocent performed the service at Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. The new bishop’s vestments were a gift from Tsar Nicholas II.
For the next ten years Bishop Raphael tended his growing flock. With the growth of his New York community came an increase in the number of children, and he was concerned about their future. Children who did not speak Arabic were already going to non-Orthodox churches where Sunday school classes were conducted in English. Bishop Raphael saw the absolute necessity for using English in worship and in education for the future progress of the Syro-Arab Mission.
In 1913-1914 this missionary bishop continued to make pastoral visitations to various cities. In 1915 he fell ill again and spent two months at home, bearing his ailment with patience. At 12:40 AM on February 14/27 he rested from his labors. They called him, but he did not answer. They shook him, but he was gone.
From his youth, Saint Raphael’s greatest joy was to serve the Church. When he came to America, he found his people scattered abroad, and he called them to unity. He never neglected his flock, but traveled throughout America, Canada, and Mexico in search of them so that he might care for them. He kept them from straying into strange pastures, and he protected them from spiritual harm. During twenty years of faithful ministry he nurtured them and helped them to grow.
Excerpts and photo taken from oca.org