Born about the year 1832, Blessed Rafka was first known by her baptismal name Boutrossieh (Pierrette or Petronila in French). Before dying, Blessed Rafka told of her life to Sister Ursula, superior of the monastery in which she died, “There is nothing important in my life that is worthy of being recorded … my mother died when I was seven years old. After her death my father married for a second time.”
When Blessed Rafka was 14 years old her stepmother wanted her to marry her brother, and her maternal aunt wanted her to marry her son. Rafka did not want to marry either of the men and this caused a great deal of discord in her family. After overhearing her stepmother and aunt exchange insults, Rafka asked God to help her deal with the problem. She then decided to become a nun and went straight to the convent of Our Lady of Liberation at Bikfaya.
This decision was not just to escape the problem of her marriage but a response to a true calling. As Rafka recounts, “When I entered the Church I felt immense joy, inner relief and, looking at the image of the Blessed Virgin, I felt as if a voice had come from it and penetrated the most intimate part of my conscience. It said to me: You will be a nun.”
Rafka’s father and stepmother did try to take her back home but she did not want to go. “I asked the mistress of novices to excuse me from seeing them and she agreed. They returned home, saddened, and since then I never saw them again…”
Fr. Joseph Gemayel and his family founded a new religious institute for women that provided them with full- time education as well as religious instruction. Blessed Rafka’s name, Pierina, was listed last among the first four aspirants of “Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception” (“Mariamettes”, in French) in Fr. Gemayel’s notebook dated January 1, 1853. She was 21.
On February 9, 1855, the Feast of St. Maron, Rafka commenced her novitiate in Ghazir convent and chose the name Anissa (Agnes). She took her first vows in 1856 that were renewable every year. She was first “in charge of the kitchen and was studying in preparation for teaching the rudiments of culture … She was placed in charge of the workers and had the task of giving them religious instruction in a spinning mill in Scerdanieh , where she remained for two months.” After her final vows, Rafka was sent to the Jesuit founded Eastern seminary of Ghazir .
In 1860 she went to Deir-el-Qamar , in southern Lebanon. She recounted, “That year there were the well known battles and bloody massacres.” In less than two months the Druse sect, goaded by the Turks, killed 7,771 people and destroyed 360 villages, 560 churches, 28 schools, and 42 convents. Blessed Rafka saved one child’s life by hiding him in her skirt as he was being chased by some soldiers.
Two years later, Rafka was transferred to Gebail where she remained for one year before going to Ma’ad at the request of Antoun (Anthony) Issa, a local dignitary who was married but had no children. Rafka lived in their home while teaching Christian doctrine and supervising religious practice. One of her students of six years described Sister Anissa as “always tranquil, serene, sensitive and smiling in her humility…she never raised her voice and…never used corporal punishment.”
In 1871, the “Mariamettes” religious institute dissolved. Blessed Rafka decided to join the Baladita Order, the monastic order now named “The Lebanese Maronite Order of St. Anthony, founded in 1695 and told Antoun Issa of her decision. He asked her to stay on until the end of the year promising to leave her property and money but refused. Realizing her resolve, he offered to pay the dowry demanded by the Order for her.
That same night, Blessed Rafka dreamed of three men. One with a white beard, one dressed like a soldier and the third was an old man. One of the men said to her, “’Become a nun in the Baladita Order.’ I woke up very happy … and went to Antoun Issa, bursting with joy … and I told him about my dream.” Antoun identified the men as St. Anthony of Qozhaia (St. Anthony Abbot) of whom the order was inspired, the soldier was St. George, to whom the church in Ma’ad was dedicated and the third could only be a Baladita monk. Rafka decided to leave immediately for the monastery of St. Simon in Al-Qarn. Antoun gave her the money as promised as well as a letter of recommendation to the archbishop.
On July 12, 1871, at the age of 39, Blessed Rafka began her novitiate into the new monastery and then on August 25, 1873, she “professed her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the spirit of the strict Rule of the Baladita Order.” Her new name was that of her mother’s, Rafka, (Rebecca), the name of Abraham’s great granddaughter and wife of his son Isaac. Rafka remained in the monastery until 1897.
In 1885, at the age of 53, Blessed Rafka decided not to join the nuns for a walk around the monastery. In her autobiographical account she wrote, “It was the first Sunday of the Rosary. I did not accompany them. Before leaving each of the nuns came and said to me, ‘Pray for me sister.’ There were some who asked me to say seven decades of the Rosary … I went to the Church and started to pray. Seeing that I was in good health and that I had never been sick in my life, I prayed to God in this way, ‘Why, O my God, have you distance yourself from me and have abandoned me. You have never visited me with sickness! Have you perhaps abandoned me?’”
Blessed Rafka continued in her account to her superior, the next night after the prayer “At the moment of sleeping I felt a most violent pain spreading above my eyes to the point that I reached the state you see me in, blind and paralyzed, and as I myself had asked for sickness I could not allow myself to complain or murmur.”
“The symbolic daughter of a country which for over a decade has been in the world headlines because of its suffering,” 1Blessed Rafka (Rebecca) suffered many years because of her desire to share in the passion of Jesus Christ.
One sister accompanied Rebecca to Tripoli for a medical visit for her eyes. “The doctor explored, poking one eye, then the other. Blood gushed out and… [Rafka] remained calm and smiling, repeating, ‘In communion with your suffering, Jesus!’…Two or three days later, the sore became inflamed and for about a month there was a copious discharge of pus.”
For two years, Blessed Rafka suffered. She went to several doctors who all agreed that there was nothing they could do. Upon the persuasion of Fr. Estefan, Blessed Rafka consulted an American doctor who strongly suggested that the eye be removed. Fr. Estefan recalls, “Before the operation I asked the doctor to anesthetize the eye so that Rebecca would not feel any pain but she refused. The doctor made her sit down and pushed a long scalpel … into her eye … the eye popped out and fell on the ground, palpitating slightly … Rafka didn’t complain … but only said, ‘in communion with Christ’s Passion.’” The pain was then all concentrated to her left eye and nothing could be done.
Gradually her left eye shrunk and sunk into the socket and Rafka became blind. For about thirty years both sockets hemorrhaged two to three times a week. She also suffered from frequent nosebleeds. “Her head, her brow, her eyes, her nose were as if they were being pierced by a red hot needle. Rafka did not let this pain isolate her from the community. She continued to spin wool and cotton and knitted stockings for the other sisters; she participated in choral prayer.
Due to the harsh winters at the monastery of St. Simon, Rafka was allowed to spend the coldest months on the Lebanese coast as a guest of the Sisters of Charity and then of the residence of the Maronite Order. Unable to observe the Rule at these locales, Blessed Rafka asked to be taken to the monastery of St. Elias at El Rass, which belonged to her order.
In 1897, Blessed Rafka, out of obedience, was able to permanently move to the monastery St. Joseph of Gerbata in Ma’ad along with Sister Ursula, where she remained for the last 17 years of her life. It was here that her suffering increased.
In 1907, she confided to Sister Ursula that she felt a pain in her legs, “as if someone were sticking lances in them and pain in my toes as if they were being pulled off.” This began the long list of sufferings and pains Blessed Rafka withstood for the last seven years of her life.
Based on direct evidence and on the autopsy of Rafka’s remains in 1927, she became paralyzed due to “the progressive disarticulation of her bones. She kept intact only her brain, her tongue, her ears and her wrist and finger joints while the pain continued in her head, her devastated eye sockets and her nosebleeds … completely immobile her lower jaw touched her benumbed knee.”
Even in this state, Blessed Rafka was able to crawl to the chapel on the feast of Corpus Christi to the amazement of all the sisters. When asked about this, Blessed Rafka replied, “I don’t know. I asked God to help me and suddenly I felt myself slipping from the bed with my legs hanging down; I fell on the floor and crawled to the chapel.”
On a separate occasion, when asked by her superior if she would like to see, Blessed Rafka responded, “I would like to see for at least an hour, to be able to look at you.” In an instant the superior could see Rafka smile and suddenly said, “Look, I can see now.” Not believing her, Sister Ursula put her to the test asking her to identify several objects. Shortly thereafter, Rafka fell into a deep sleep for about two hours. Sister Ursula became worried and tried repeatedly to awaken her. Upon waking, Rafka explained that she had entered a large, beautifully decorated building with baths full of water and people crowding to enter them; she went with them. Sister Ursula asked her why she came back; why she didn’t continue to walk. Blessed Rafka explained, “You called me, and I came.”
Blessed Rafka’s obedience and love for her superior is quite evident in this account. For a nun, the superior, “as the Rule puts it, represents Christ and is owed respect, obedience and love. Despite her condition, Rafka did nothing without the Superior’s permission.”
Three days before her death, Rafka said, “I am not afraid of death which I have waited for for a long time. God will let me live through my death.” Then on October 23, 1914, four minutes after receiving final absolution and the plenary indulgence, she died.
On June 9, 1984, the eve of Pentecost, in the presence of the Holy Father John Paul II, the decree approving the miracle of Elizabeth Ennakl who was completely cured of uterine cancer in 1938 at the tomb of Rafka, was promulgated.
On November 16, 1985 His Holiness Pope John Paul II declared her a Blessed and on June 10, 2001 the same Holy Father elevated her to the rank of Saints at a solemn ceremony in the Vatican.