Word Magazine March 1995



Coming from Russia Raphael Hawaweeny found people of his own native land who offered him the reins of leadership, placing him at the forefront of their assembly and in their destiny. From the day he first began the task of pastoring North America’s Orthodox Syrian immigrants, their num­bers continued to grow, and each time they moved to new places, whether in towns or vil­lages or on remote farms and ranches, he gathered them under the banner of unity and his pas­toral care. His shepherding kept the sheep from straying into strange pastures; his hand kept them safe from the wolf who would pounce upon and devour them. Raphael preserved from paganism the sons of Israel who were in exile; he transformed the fiery fur­nace fueled by blasphemy and denial into a heavenly paradise moistened by the dew of religion and faith.

Following their sorrowful exile, lowly like the Israel of old, the Orthodox Syrian immigrants felt the spirit of life spread through them upon Raphael’s arrival. The deeds and responsibilities of their honorable pastor only grew brighter and more beautiful as the needs and demands of his spiritual children increased; as a wise leader he saw to it that pastorates of the newly-established parishes were filled with worthy candidates.

Beginning in the summer of 1896, Raphael set out on his first pastoral journey ‘to be oriented with several thousand Arabic-speaking Christians, visiting thirty cities on a straight line from New York to San Francisco. During his pastoral visit, Raphael performed marriages, baptisms, chrismations of those whose baptisms had come at the hands of non-Orthodox clerics, heard confessions, celebrated Divine Liturgies in the crowded liv­ing rooms of the faithful where they were able to receive the Eucharist. Following the Liturgy he would preach long, fiery sermons to the spiritually hungry people, his words inspiring hope and courage. In every community he visited, he was greeted as if he were Christ Himself.

Visiting Arabic-speaking Christian communities, Raphael saw the necessity of establishing individual churches in every region, with New York’s St. Nicholas Church serving as the “Mother of the Churches” and cornerstone of the Orthodox Arabs in North America. Thus Raphael, both as an archimandrite and later as a bishop, appointed pastors only after requesting and receiving the blessing of the head of the Russian Church in America and (in case of appointing priests from the other Orthodox churches) he asked for the canonical release.

Archimandrite Raphael’s first pastoral tour had pointed out the advisability of compiling a book in Arabic for use in the new Arabic communities, containing the necessary liturgical prayers and services. He asked Bishop Nicholas, of the Russian Church in America, to permit him to publish such a book. The request was granted and Archimandrite Raphael’s first book in the New World was issued in 1898 under the tide of Al-ta’ziyah al-haqiqiyyah fi as-salawat al-­ilahiyyah (The Book of True Consolation in the Divine Prayers).

Once again, in 1898, Archimandrite Raphael decided to visit Orthodox Syrian communities in North America. He began in May his second pastoral tour which lasted five months. Back from every visit, Archimandrite Raphael sent a full report to Bishop Nicholas along with a request that priests be appointed to look after the spiritual needs of the Orthodox Syrian communities in North America. Permission was given and Raphael looked for priests or for educated laymen whom he recommended for ordination. He brought to North America theological students of Syrian origin from Syria and from Moscow, and after their ordinations, he appointed them to the communities he newly established. Each community, therefore, formed a “Syrian Society,” rented a place for worship, and sent Raphael proposed constitutions. Raphael approved the constitutions if they were in agreement with the teachings of the Orthodox Church and the laws of the United States or Canada. After each community was able to purchase land and build a church temple, a bishop would visit the parish and consecrate the church temple.

On May 8, 1899, Raphael undertook another pastoral tour out of the “Mother of Churches,” St. Nicholas Church in New York and back again to it enlarging his communities and reaching out the scattered flock in so expansive a country. In the course of six months Raphael visited forth-three cities and towns, in fourteen states: New York, Georgia, District of Columbus, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, hearing confessions and giving communion to six hundred fifty persons, baptizing ninety-eight souls, performing seventy-three weddings, celebrating forty-five Divine Liturgies, and delivering forty-five sermons. While his primary mission was to the Orthodox Arabs, he denied his ministrations to no one; Arabs and non-Arabs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Christians and non-Christians all attended his services. His journey ended on November 20, 1899.

He was pastor and father to all. His sheep knew his voice, his sons and daughters recognized his love, compassion and tenderness. He was a father more than a chief and a servant more than a master. The following is one of the many recalls that show his closeness to his people: On Tuesday, September 19, 1899, he arrived in Kearney, NE, at midnight eight and a half hours later than scheduled; nevertheless, nearly the entire Arab community was still gathered at the station to greet him. During the open coach ride to the home in which he was to stay, Raphael caught cold, but still stayed up until 4:00 A.M., talking with the people. In the morning he was too exhausted to serve Liturgy, so he substituted the Typica service. By evening he felt stronger, and set out in the company of fifteen Arabs by buckboard to visit an outlying ranch. They sang church hymns and folk songs the whole way, and arrived at 1:00 A.M. The host kissed the ground in front of Raphael, then his feet and hands. Raphael was greatly touched by this display. The man’s wife was also very happy finally to have the opportunity to confess her sins and see her four children baptized. Raphael slept on their small divan (while the rest of the party spread out on chairs and the floor). In the morning they celebrated Orthros, blessed water to sanctify the cabin and the rest of the property. In the evening they returned to Kearney; the remaining ranchers gathered there to meet him.”

On January 30, 1902, Raphael departed New York for Mexico upon invitations from the many Orthodox Arabs, who immigrated to that country and were living without a priest to care for them, who learned about Raphael from Deacon Nifon Shoohy who left his work in New York and went to Mexico in October, 1900. During his visit Raphael celebrated Divine Liturgies and performed many sacraments and church services to several hundred local Arab-Orthodox and a large number of Non-Orthodox and Mexican nationals attended those services. Raphael found that Catholicism was practiced there very superficially. The Mexican men felt that attending church services was unmanly – even shameful. Disbelief was widespread. The Mexican Republic had placed burdensome restrictions on the Roman Catholic clergy, and a nationalistic Old Catholic Church was competing for souls. The Arab Christians living in that country requested the establishment of an Orthodox community. Raphael agreeing with them and believing that the entire Yucatan was ripe for Orthodox Missionary work, established the first Arab Orthodox community in Mexico, but he was unable to assign a priest to serve that community until 1909. Raphael ended his visit, heading to New York on March 2.

In a short time Raphael’s own shepherd, Archbishop Tikhon, who succeeded Archbishop Nicholas, reasoned that the hand which took such good and loving care of the Orthodox Syrian parishes in North America was indeed worthy of holding the archpastoral staff. Therefore, early in the twentieth century the Russian Holy Synod, upon the nomination of Archbishop Tikhon, elected Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny for consecration as the Syro-Arab-American community’s own bishop. On March 12, 1904, the New World was blessed for the first time with the rite of the consecration of an Orthodox Bishop, in St. Nicholas Church, now located in Brooklyn. Following the consecration Bishop Raphael continued his work among the Orthodox Syrians, ordaining priests and assigning them to the Syrian communities and helping Archbishop Tikhon to administer the North American Diocese. Bishop Raphael established his episcopal residence near his cathedral “St. Nicholas,” on Pacific St. in Brooklyn, NY.

Raphael’s love for ministry to all Syrian Arabs in general and especially for the Orthodox who were spread across North America, gave rise to Al-Kalimat, which would serve as the official publication of his diocese. Since Raphael realized he was unable to preach everywhere in person (yet he confessed that “those far away have the same right to hear the Word of God as their brothers in New York”) a print ministry was his only recourse. Al-Kalimat was to have a purely spiritual, moral and ecclesial content, in accordance with the “authority which the Lord has given me for building up and for tearing down” (11 Cor. 13:10). Through its pages Raphael sought to strengthen true religious doctrines and Christian Ethics, spread the spirit of love among all the Syrians, and described the situation of Christian nations, especially of the Orthodox in North America. He would also seek to avoid any and all fruitless or evil religious arguments, criticisms, or things that might offend any ecclesiastical or civil parties, as well as all exaggeration and “hired correspondence.” Often at his own expense it was sent to Arabic-speaking Christians across North America, Australia, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

Raphael conducted his affairs like a good shepherd and as one of Christ’s apostles, traveling by land and sea, crossing plains and mountains. From New York and as far west as California he had fully preached the gospel of Christ. Every year, in search of his sheep, he roamed from one region to the next. Under his care the Church flourished well and produced good fruits. His last pastoral journey began on January 26, 1914, and ended on October 29, of that year, spending the month of June at his episcopal residence. He visited twenty-four communities in twenty-one cities and towns of fifteen states of America (Massachusetts, District of Columbia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio); and three communities in Canada (Montreal and Toronto). Besides his long journeys, Raphael undertook many short visitations upon the request of the parishes to perform sacraments. Most of the time, he was accompanied by his Archdeacon Emmanuel Abo Hatab, a devoted and faithful friend.

In nineteen years Raphael crowned his pastorate with glory and honor. He never vested it in garments of shame; he occupied it in majesty and splendor; he adorned it with chastity and perfection. He placed each and every one he met and served in his journeys, within his very spirit. Every plant he planted, he watered it with his tears and sweat. He nourished his sheep with the milk of care and love. In his pastoral journeys he returned the sons of exile to the Land of Israel; he led the people of the desert into the Promised Land; and he gathered the dispersed nation under the banner of triumph. (To be continued.)

Fr. Andre’ Issa is pastor of St. George Church in Cleveland, Ohio.