St. Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayes, sometimes also called St. Rebecca, was born in Hemlaya, Lebanon in 1832. She was the only child of devout Christian parents who taught her about their faith. When she was only seven years old, Rafqa faced tragedy like many other saints: her mother died. Soon after, Rafqa and her father faced financial difficulties and Rafqa was sent to work as a domestic servant in Damascus to help support the family.
When Rafqa returned home, her father had remarried and his new wife wanted Rafqa to marry her brother, and an aunt had arranged a marriage for Rafqa to her cousin. Rafqa was given the choice between the two potential suitors and she asked God to help her with her decision. Ultimately, she decided to pursue the religious life rather than marry either man. She went to the convent of Our Lady of Deliverance in Bikfaya and joined the Mariamettes (or Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception). Stories say that as soon as she entered the convent and looked at the icon of Our Lady of Deliverance, she heard the voice of God tell her that she would become a nun.
Though her family tried to dissuade her from the religious life, Rafqa was determined, and she was eventually sent by the Mother Superior to Deir El Qamar to teach catechism. This town was filled with civil unrest. The Druze forces killed 7,771 people, and destroyed 360 villages, 560 churches, 28 schools, and 42 convents. It is said that Rafqa saved a child from being killed by soldiers by hiding him under her robes.
She spent time working in a kitchen, learning Arabic and arithmetic, and working as a teacher. She also worked with another sister to establish a school for girls. Rafqa eventually joined the Baladita Order, an order now called the Lebanese Maronite Order of St. Anthony.
In October of 1885, Rafqa asked Jesus to allow her to share in his suffering. She then began to experience pain in her head which eventually moved to her eyes. She was examined by doctors and sent to Beirut for treatment and she was referred for immediate surgery. During surgery, Rafqa refused anesthesia and because of some mistake, the doctor caused her right eye to pop out of its socket and fall to the floor. Rafqa did not complain of the pain, and instead said she was “in communion with Christ’s Passion.” The surgery, obviously, was not a success, and the pain eventually entered her left eye––a pain she experienced for the next 12 years. Throughout all of the pain she endured, she never wished to take back her wish to share in Christ’s suffering.
She continued to work with her sisters––doing all she was asked patiently and joyously––but she eventually became completely blind and experienced paralysis. Three days before she died, Rafqa said, “I am not afraid of death which I have waited for a long time. God will let me live through my death.”
St. Rafqa is depicted in the black robes and veil of her Order, with the icon that inspired her entry into the religious life, and with her eyes closed to reflect her communion with Christ in His suffering.