On June 29th, 1832 a baby girl was born to a Lebanese family in the village of Himlaya and given the name Petronilla in honor of St. Peter. When she was 6 her mother died and some years afterward she expressed a desire to enter the religious life. This was frowned upon by both her father and stepmother as well as members of her extended family since there were plans for her future marriage. Despite their disapproval, at the age of 21 Petronilla entered the Order of Mariamettes and took the name Anissa (Agnes).
There she was placed in charge of the kitchen and outside her ordinary duties she studied Arabic, calligraphy and arithmetic. Later she taught in a school for young girls, at times with great risk to herself since wars between political groups often resulted in ruthless violence. Once she saw a boy being chased by soldiers and saved his life by hiding him beneath the outer cloak of her habit.
After 12 years as a Mariamette sister, the Jesuits (on whom the Order was dependent) were forced out of Lebanon and the convent had no choice but to merge with another. Not knowing whether to remain or seek out a different community, Sister Anissa prayed for God to show her what He desired of her. Shortly afterward she had a dream in which St. George, St. Simon the Stylite and St. Anthony the Great visited her, the last telling her where to go.
She immediately entered the Lebanese Order of St. Anthony and was sent to the convent of St. Simon in Al-Qarn, taking the name Rafka in honor of her departed mother. Instead of teaching children she spent most of the day in silence, prayer and domestic work.
14 years later she knelt in the chapel pouring out her heart to God with this prayer: Why have You distanced Yourself from me and abandoned me? You have never visited me with sickness. Am I not worthy to suffer?
Within days she began to go blind and suffer increasing paralysis, eventually to be confined to her bed as lancets of pain assailed her body. And yet the tremendous agony she endured was met with a patient smile and the words, “In communion with your suffering, Jesus.” So sincere was she that when Rafka's right eye was removed without anesthesia, she simply smiled at the doctor and repeated her prayer.
For the next 30 years she did what she could with her hands—nearly the only part of her body that was still mobile. Able to spin wool and knit, Rafka was permitted to continue work with the community. This complete surrender to God's Will brought many graces as she suffered for Christ and his Church. Even the other sisters at the convent were impressed by her example of humility, kindness and constant prayer, remembering the flawless beauty of her willing sacrifice for the remainder of their lives.
One particular day on the Feast of Corpus Christi she greatly desired to join her sisters in the chapel, but of course her infirmity made this impossible and she would have to be content with receiving the Eucharist afterward when the priest visited her. However, as the Liturgy began, Sister Rafka begged God for help. Her legs uncurled and she slipped off the bed, her body still mostly deadened, but she was able to crawl slowly and in much pain to the chapel. Despite this miracle, the paralysis returned in full force as soon as the Liturgy had ended.
A few years before her death she spoke with her superior, saying if she could see again for a single hour—just to look on the face of her beloved Mother Ursula—she would be content to be blind until her death. God granted this desire of His little bride as, within moments, Sister Rafka's face lit up and she cried, “Mother, I can see you!” To be sure, the surprised nun pointed to a colorful blanket and Rafka correctly identified each color. For an hour she gazed at Mother Ursula, the cell and through the window to the beautiful countryside and then her world darkened once more.
“I am not afraid of death for which I have waited a long time. God will let me live through my death,” Rafka said just days before she was given the Last Rites. On March 23, 1914 she awoke into Heaven where she immediately began interceding for those she'd left behind.
St. Rafka, pray for us!
If you would like to see a movie about this wonderful woman please follow this link: