St. Raphael, a shepherd in America

NEW CANAAN, Pa. — The icon is coming to life in Father Paul Albert’s imagination and in the simple pen-and-ink drawings he is sharing with his bishops.

The drawings show the strong face of an Arab bishop, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and hair that contrast starkly with his Byzantine vestments. The dominant colors in the icon will be bright green touched with gold, the colors that Eastern Christianity uses to symbolize new life and Pentecost, the birthday of the church.

The inscription reads “St. Raphael, apostle to the scattered sheep of America” and grapevines are shown springing from the earth where his shepherd’s staff strikes the America soil.

They are new-growth vines and do not contain ripe fruit — yet. And Raphael is a new saint, canonized this past weekend in a glorious siege of rites and festivities that brought 17 Orthodox bishops and at least 400 pilgrims to the remote St. Tikhon’s Monastery in the lush hills of Pennsylvania, where Russian onion domes dot the horizon among the barns and silos.

“St. Raphael is such an amazing, symbolic figure,” said Albert, a priest in Toledo, Ohio. “What people have to remember is that the Arab Christians who came to America were scattered all over the place and they had no shepherd. … They were simple hillbillies from the hills of Syria and they found it hard to trust anyone in this new land. It took just the right man to reach them and St. Raphael was that man.”

There are 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and about 5 million in the United States. While this second figure is growing, mainly through evangelical and oldline Protestant conversions, the image of Orthodoxy in America remains that of a church dominated by ethnic ties to foreign lands.

Thus, it’s symbolic that Raphael was canonized by the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russia roots, with the enthusiastic backing of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its ties to Syria. Both of these churches now worship almost exclusively in English and are opening scores of convert-friendly missions. Both hail St. Raphael as a bridge between the ethnic past and the American future.

Raphael Hawaweeny was born in 1840, while Christians were being slaughtered in the streets of Damascus. His family briefly fled to Lebanon after the martyrdom of their parish priest, St. Joseph of Damascus.

“That happened the very year that Raphael was born,” noted Albert. “That’s what he was born into. That was his reality.”

The young Raphael became a monk, but had to leave home to receive an education equal to his abilities. First, he studied with the Greeks at the School of Theology in Halki and he later did graduate studies in Kiev, Russia. Raphael spent nearly a decade in Russia, leading the Arab parish in Moscow. But it was his fierce advocacy of the rights of Arab Christians back home in the ancient church of Antioch led to clashes with some bishops and, at one point, to his suspension from ministry as a priest.

Then he received an 1895 invitation to lead an Arab mission in yet another strange land — Brooklyn. By this point, Raphael knew Latin, classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic, while speaking Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Russian, French and English.

The missionary traveled from Montreal to Mexico City and founded 30 parishes. As his fame grew, Raphael had numerous opportunities to return home. The Antiochian synod offered him positions as a bishop in Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon and elsewhere. But he remained with his flock, becoming a bishop in a 1904 rite in Brooklyn that made him the first Orthodox bishop consecrated in North America. He died in 1915.

For generations, images of Raphael have been hung in many American churches. Now, there will be new icons — showing St. Raphael with a halo.

“This isn’t a fable,” stressed Albert. “St. Raphael was a real man who lived and dwelled in history. He was a man on a mission who was used by God in a unique way — the right man in the right place at the right time. Now he is a saint we can truly call our own.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.