A series of articles on personalities of the past who have profoundly influenced Orthodoxy in America

Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn

The morning of Saturday, March 12, 1904, brought an air of great joy and excitement to the scattered communities of Orthodox faithful throughout North America. But nowhere was the excitement so evident as in the Arab Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York, because their pastor, Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny, was to be consecrated a Bishop that morning during Divine Liturgy.

Raphael Hawaweeny was born to pious Orthodox parents on November 8,1860 in Damascus, Syria. At that time Syria and the rest of the Holy Land was under the domination of the Ottoman Empire. It was not easy to be an Orthodox Christian in those days. The Turkish government had strict regulations governing the conduct of Christians and often closed its eyes to the discrimination against and massacring of the Christian population. The Balamand Seminary, the only school for the training of clergy in the Patriarchate of Antioch, had been closed in 1840, so when Raphael expressed his desire to study for the Priesthood he was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarchates Theological University on the island of Halki, about 30 miles from Constantinople.

After completing studies at the University, Deacon Raphael applied and was accepted for graduate work at the Kiev Theological Academy. In 1894 Deacon Raphael accepted a professorship at the Kazan Theological Academy, where he taught Arabic Language and Literature. During this era the Holy Synod of Russia had taken responsibility for the protection and education of the Orthodox Christians throughout the Holy Land (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan). Not only did they refurbish the churches with new icons, vestments and bells, but they established parochial schools where Orthodox children could get a good education. The students of Deacon Raphael would become members of the Imperial Palestine Society which brought these blessings to the Holy Land.


Invitation To America

Because of religious persecution and economic instability in their homeland, many Arab Orthodox migrated to the New World in search of freedom. Because of their limited finances and little knowledge of their new country, the majority of these new immigrants remained in New York City after passing through the immigration offices on Ellis Island. In 1895 they organized themselves into the Orthodox Benevolent Society to care for their common needs. One of their most prestigious and learned members, Dr. Ibrahim Arbeely, was chosen to be their president. Dr. Arbeely had heard of a young Syrian Deacon in Russia who was interested in missionary work. In keeping with the goals of the Orthodox Benevolent Society, to provide for the spiritual, educational, cultural and economic needs of the new Arab immigrants, Dr. Arbeely wrote to Deacon Raphael asking him to come to America to serve his fellow-countrymen.

Traveling to St. Petersburg, Deacon Raphael met with Bishop NICHOLAS and asked for his blessing to accept the challenging opportunity in America. Bishop NICHOLAS responded favorably to the request and ordained Deacon Raphael to the Priesthood and elevated him to the rank of Archimandrite. To accompany Father Raphael on his mission, the Holy Synod appointed two other young Arabs who were studying in Russia … Constantine Abou-Adal and John Shamie (both would be ordained to the Priesthood in later years).

Upon his arrival in New York in 1896 Father Raphael was appointed by the presiding Bishop to head the “Syro-Arabian Mission in North America,” which at that time numbered approximately 20,000 souls. He was assigned to serve as pastor to the community in New York City where he quickly set about to organize a parish with permanent facilities. Together with Constantine Abou-Adal, his young chanter, Father Raphael set up a chapel at 77 Washington Street. He furnished the entire chapel without asking for funds from his flock. He even refused to accept the small salary which the community had been able to offer. In no way did he wish to burden his struggling congregation.


Missionary Travels

As news began to reach him of other small com­munities of Arab Orthodox widely scattered across the United States and Canada, he set out on his missionary journeys … often traveling by horse and buggy. He baptized, married and blessed graves in cities and villages throughout the continent. The most important part of his pastoral visits was his celebration of the Divine Liturgy where the faithful were once again able to receive the Eucharist.

These services were, for the most part, celebrated in the crowded living rooms of the faithful. When word reached a community that a “Khouri” was coming, the preparations immediately began. There were people to contact and huge amounts of food to prepare for those who would be coming from great distances for the special occasion. When Father Raphael finally arrived the enthusiasm was overwhelming. He was greeted as if he were Christ Himself. After escorting him to the place where the Liturgy was to be celebrated, the people set about lighting candles and incense, and lining up with men on the left and women on the right. The children of course were placed in the front where the watchful eyes of the parents would be able to spot each yawn or turn of the head. Such “unchurchly” actions by the children would be quickly acknowledged by a knuckle on the head from the closest “aunt” or “uncle.” With the first “Amen” it was evident to Father Raphael that he had made the right decision in coming to America. The cross-armed men of the congregation would almost shake the house apart with their chanting ... each trying to out-do the other with volume and knowledge of the hymns. Following the Liturgy Father Raphael would preach long, fiery sermons to the spiritually hungry people. The “best” part of the sermon was when he would promise the congregation that help was coming that they would have a church and a priest of their own. These were bold words for one, sole priest to make. But with unshakeable faith in God, Father Raphael continued to preach this good news. His words inspired hope and courage in others, as witnessed by the parish communities and churches which were organized. In 1898 he translated and published the Great Evchologion into Arabic for use in these new parishes.

By 1901 news of this young, dynamic Archimandrite reached the Holy Synod of Antioch. In December of that year Father Raphael was elected to be Bishop of Zahie in Syria. He was twice invited to return to Syria for episcopal consecration but each time he refused, saying that his labors in America were still unfinished.

In 1902 the New York parish was secure enough to purchase a church building in Brooklyn for $12,000. The church, placed under the patronage of St. Nicholas of Myra, was located at 301-303 Pacific Street. Following renovation for use by the Orthodox, the church was consecrated by Bishop TIKHON on October 27, 1902. Saint Nicholas, although now located at a different location in Brooklyn, is still considered the “mother church” of the Arab Orthodox on this continent, and is the first Cathedral of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.


Elected Bishop

Bishop TIKHON, the head of the Russian Church in North America which had jurisdiction over the Syro-Arabian Mission, was so impressed by Father Raphael’s qualities of spiritual and educational leadership, that he sought permission from the Holy Synod of Russia to have the young Syrian Archi­mandrite consecrated to serve as his vicar-bishop. The Synod gave its blessing and on Friday, March 11, 1904 Bishop TIKHON and Bishop INNOCENT of Alaska elected Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny as Bishop of Brooklyn.

The following day, March 12, the Saint Nicholas Church on Pacific Street was filled early in the morning by the faithful who had come to see their “Aboona Raphael” consecrated a Bishop during the Divine Liturgy. Many Greeks, Russians, and Orthodox of other nationalities also crowded the church to witness the first consecration of an Orthodox Bishop in the New World. The chanting of “Holy God” was done with an added touch of gusto, as excitement over the consecration, which was to follow the hymn, was reaching a climax. With Bishops TIKHON and INNOCENT waiting in the Holy Doors of the iconostas, Father Raphael was led into the sanctuary where he knelt before the Altar Table. The Bishops placed their hands upon his head as they offered the prayers of consecration. Following the prayers Hawaweeny rose to be vested as a Bishop to the resounding shouts of “Axios, Mustahik, He is worthy” from the clergy and laity. At the conclusion of the Liturgy Bishop TIKHON presented the pastoral staff to the new Bishop RAPHAEL with words that likened him to the good shepherd in Ezekiel: “As a shepherd I will rescue my flock from all places where they have been scattered … I will seek the lost and bring back those who have strayed.”


Founded The Word

In the eleven years of his episcopacy Bishop RAPHAEL continued his missionary work among the Orthodox in North America, Arab and non-Arab alike. On January 1, 1905 he published the first issue of Al Kalimat (the present Word Magazine) for the education of his people. He sought the assistance of Father Ingram N.W. Irvine, a convert to Orthodoxy, in providing articles in the English language for the young people and converts numbered among his flock. In late 1912 he sent his famous “Pastoral Letter” to his clergy and people forbidding them to accept the ministrations of Episcopalian clergy, who at that time were deceiving people into believing that Orthodoxy and Anglicanism were synonymous. *

On February 27, 1915, Bishop RAPHAEL Hawaweeny departed this life and was buried in Brooklyn’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, where a small shrine now marks his grave. With the death of this brilliant and dedicated leader and with the confusion resulting from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the unity of Orthodoxy in the New World was ruptured. Even the small Arab Mission was split into opposing factions … “Russy,” those who favored Russian jurisdiction; and “Antaky,” those who favored Antiochian jurisdiction. In later years other divisions and opposing loyalties would arise. It was not until sixty years after the death of Bishop RAPHAEL, in June of 1975, that the Arab Orthodox congregations in North America were to enjoy the blessing of unity once again.


— William Essey

* Editors’ Note: This letter will be published in a future issue of THE WORD.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
May 1976
pp. 12-14