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Saint Rafqa, a Lebanese nun (1832-1914)

Rafqa saw the light first in Ham’leya, a village in Matin, Lebanon, in the year 1832. she was the only child for her pious parents: Mourad Saber Al’Shoobk (Al’Raiss), and Rafqa Al’Jemmail; who died while her little Boutorsie [1] was merely four years old.

It was natural that several young men were showed interest in the beautiful, sweet, pious, teenage Boutorsie, which accelerated her decision to become a nun. She then in January 1st 1853 joined the convent of the Our Lady of Help, which belonged to a Marian Religious Order. In 1855 on the feast of Saint Maron (Feb. 9th) she was received in among the novices, wherein she showed true maturity, and simple piety. The fact that encouraged her superiors to put Boutorsie in charge of some working girls in a small clothe fabric in Shebanieh. There she did a great job supervising the work, and teaching catechism to the girls. After that she was transferred to Ghazir where she professed her temporary vows in Febuary 10th, 1856. She stayed in Ghazir for seven years, working hard in the kitchen of the convent.

Around the year 1860, some Jesuit priests invited Boutorsie and another nun to assist them in their mission educative activities in Deir El’Kamar. It was during her stay there that the famous ugly massacres against the Maronites [2] there happened. One day, and as sister Boutorsie was walking down the streets in Deir El’Kamar, she noticed a little boy being chassed by the Muslim soldiers who were seeking to kill him, and as the boy run toward her seeking her help, she hid him quickly under her religious robe, saving his life. As the hostility grew boldly against Christians in the Shoof (Deir El’Kamar region), Boutorsie run back to Ghasir, then was assigned to teach Jebeil for one year. From there he reputation as a good teacher and holy person reached Meaad, Batrounl; thus Mr. Antoun Issa requested from her superior that she might come to his town Meaad to take care of the girls’ education there. The Marian Order answered this request by sending sister Boutorsie along with another nun to Meaad, where they started a school that grow up to have some 60 girls. There, they stayed for seven years, and God blessed them with great success.

After that it happened that the Marian Order where Boutorsie belonged got dissolved, and she was given the choice to turn back to the lay status. But God inspired sister Boutorsie to enter the convent of Saint Simon, in Qarn nearby Aito [3], which was dedicated to the Lebanese cloistered nuns. Boutorsie received the novitiates’ uniform in July 12, 1871, then professed her perpetual vows of obedience, chastity and poverty in August 25th 1872, taken for herself a new religious name, Rafqa, after her mother.

There sister Rafqa was an example to follow for her sisters in the convent in virtues, adherence to the rules, and unceasing prayers and silent hard work. However and after spending some peaceful, healthy 14 years in the convent of Saint Simon, sister Rafqa felt that God is calling her to bigger sacrifices, to her total gift of self. It was the first Sunday of October 1885, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, when Rafqa prayed ardently before the Blessed Sacrament: “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why you distance yourself from me? Test me with an illness, so that I can show you the depth of my love, and do penance for my sins and the sins’ of others?” The good Lord who is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4) answered her prayers immediately. And from the night of that Sunday on, Rafqa felt a terrible headache, which spread out like a fire-belt to her eyes, and she suffered it painfully but patiently for some 12 years, until it caused her blindness. After that, her superior sent her with the care of Mr. Saleh Doumit of Meaad to get hospitalized in Beirut, and on their way they stopped in the Order’s house in Jebeil, where they met an American physician, who after getting to see her eye, decided that a surgery is necessary for her. Rafqa refused to get anesthetized, willing voluntarily to endure the terrible pain, and by incident the doctor pulled out her whole eye, while she was repeating: “I join my sufferings to Yours, my Jesus. Thank you doctor, God bless you.” Then, she asked father Steven from Bentaal who happened to be there with her, whether he had paid the doctor his dues? To which he replied: “What! Do you wanna pay him for pulling out your eye!?

Rafqa stayed in Saint Simon’s convent for 26 years. Then, when her Order decided to establish the convent of Saint Joseph, in Jeribta, Batroun, in the year 1897, Rafqa was sent along with other five sisters from Saint Simon’s community, for that mission. At that point Rafqa’s left eye was almost blind, and in fact she became totally blind after two years stay in Saint Joseph, and with this she will go a new more painful journey.

One day Rafqa told her superior, mother Ursela Doumit, that she “feels a great pain in her waist, as if lances are piercing it, and in my toes, which feels like being cut off.” Her body was deteriorating and getting weaker every day because of that, except for her face, which always looked fine and beautiful. From that time on, Rafqa could not walk or stand up, and she remained in bed. First, her right hip got untied and deviated from its place, and then her second leg got untied also. According to an eye-witness sister: “Rafqa could not move in her bed, unless we moved her body. I remember that one day I assisted in moving her from her bed to change the sheets, and as we did her hip got untied. She told us in gentle tone:’sister, my hip hurts’. And as we looked we could see that her hip was untied from the waist, and deviated from its place. The bone of her shoulder went through her neck. This arthritis caused her unimaginable sufferings. The bones of her back were clearly visible, and could easily be counted. There was no bone-joint in her body that was not paralytic, but her hands which she used to sew socks and wears for the sisters, and she thanked God for keeping her hands good so she could work and avoid staying idol.”

Once Rafqa was asked by her superior: “What hurts you?” and she answered: “the pain is everywhere in my body, within my bones from inside. My bones are like an empty sponge, and you can verify this after my death.”

Rafqa died a holy woman in March 23rd 1914, and was buried simply in the convent’s cemetery under the oaks trees. Unlike what happened to the dead body of Saint Sharbel, Rafqa’s body was corrupted as she was still alive. And when it was examined later, her bones looked like an empty sponge. It is the same good Lord who preserved the body of Saint Sharbel uncorrupted after his death against the nature’s laws, Who allowed that Rafqa’s body be corrupted during her life, and be minimally good to keep her alive, challenging in both cases the law of the nature, which He had made for our sake.

Rafqa’s famous reputation of holiness during her life, increased the more after her death, and was reaffirmed again and again as days passed by witnessing the numerous miracles and signs granted by God to his people, through her intercession. Thus, her canonization process was launched, and committees were formed by the appropriate Church’s authorities to examine her way of holiness, in the year 1926. In the year 1968, Jun 1st, Pope Paul VI signed the papers of her canonization process. And when the work of the second phase of her canonization ended, Pope John Paul II ordered that a résumé about her heroic virtues be published in February 11th 1982. Toward the end of the third phase of her canonization, the pope scheduled November 17th, 1985 as the day of declaring her an Beatified, and in Jun 10th, 2001, Pope John Paul II announced her a Saint for the Universal (Catholic) Church. May her prayers be with us. Amen.

[1] The female form of Boutros, i.e. Peter, which is the equivalent of Italian Pierina or the French Pierrette.

[2] The 1860 were some of the ugliest massacres led by the Druze against the Maronites in Lebanon and Syria. Some 10,000 people were brutally butchered with an Turkish Ottoman and British support.

[3] This monastery in the Maronite Diocese of Zougharta, and is in the mountains of North Lebanon mid way between Ehdin & Zougharta.