He received his primary and secondary education in the parochial schools of Damascus, and his first theological training at the Oecumenical Patriarchate’s Theological School at Halki in the Princes Islands. He later studied at the Kiev Theological Academy in Imperial Russia. During this time, the Syro-Arab community in the United States was growing at an increasing rate. A Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society was organized in New York City and the president, Dr. Ibrahim Arbeely, contacted St. Raphael, then a priest, about coming to the United States. St. Raphael met with Bishop Nicholas in St. Petersburg and in 1895 returned with him to the United States to serve the Syro-Arab community. St. Raphael was placed in charge of the entire Syrian Orthodox Mission. He was assigned to New York City and organized the parish which later became St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. He supervised the development of other Syrian communities, traveling widely through the United States in 1896 to organize parishes. By 1898, St. Raphael published a large Arabic Service Book for use in his churches. Later in the same year, he was to be the ranking representative of the American Mission to greet St. Tikhon (Bellavin), the new diocesan bishop. At the Liturgy on December 15, 1898, he spoke of St. Tikhon’s mission in his sermon. “He has been sent here to tend the flock of Christ – Russians, Slavs, Syro-Arabs, and Greeks -which is scattered across the entire North American continent.”
St. Tikhon recognized his qualities and wanted St. Raphael to be one of his vicar-bishops in the reorganized diocese. In 1903, St. Tikhon went to Russia and asked the Holy Synod to approve his plan for the election of St. Raphael as his vicar-bishop. They approved St. Raphael’s election and also consecrated Bishop Innocent (Pustynsky) as St. Tikhon’s vicar-bishop for Alaska. On March 12, 1904, the solemn rite of the election of St. Raphael as Bishop of Brooklyn was performed by St. Tikhon and Bishop Innocent at the Russian St. Nicholas Cathedral in Manhattan after the Vigil. The consecration took place the next day at the Syrian St. Nicholas Church in Brooklyn, with St. Raphael making his Confession of Faith both in Slavonic and Arabic.
Following his consecration, St. Raphael continued his work among the Syrian Orthodox and also helped St. Tikhon and his successors to administer the North American Mission. St. Raphael presided at the clergy conference held in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, on August 2, 1905, in the absence of St. Tikhon. He also consecrated the grounds of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, the first Orthodox monastery in the New World. He founded the magazine The Word Magazine in 1905. After twenty years of service in North America, St. Raphael fell asleep in Christ at his residence next to his cathedral on Pacific Street in Brooklyn on February 27, 1915. At the time of his repose, he administered thirty Syrian Orthodox congregations with 25,000 faithful.
St. Raphael’s sacred relics were first interred in a crypt beneath the holy table at his St. Nicholas Cathedral (March 7, 1915), later buried in the Syrian Section of Brooklyn’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery (April 2, 1922), and finally translated to Holy Resurrection Cemetery at the Antiochian Village near Ligonier, Pennsylvania (August 15, 1988). His sanctity was officially proclaimed on March 29, 2000, and his glorification celebrated on May 29, 2000, at St. Tikhon’s Monastery.
Today a splendid festival dawns upon the whole world. Today the lands of Russia and ancient Syria celebrate the memory of their righteous son Raphael, apostle to America, good shepherd of the lost sheep. Wherefore, let us celebrate this festive day and cry out unto him, saying: Rejoice, O new Moses, who didst lead thy people out of the wilderness into the Promised Land! Rejoice, O new Elias, who hast placed within the holy Church a double portion of thy spirit! Rejoice, O new Ezra, thou builder of the Temple of God! Rejoice, O new Apostle of Christ our God, the fisher of men! As thou hast boldness with the Angels before the throne of God, never cease to intercede with Christ God for thy holy flock.