SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — To the average Puerto Rican, born and raised in the country, the figure of “el maestro Rafael” (Rafael the teacher) was a fleeting reference in a grade school lesson.
In recent times, however, his stature has grown, putting him on the long road to sainthood.
In December, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing that Rafael Cordero Molina – known as the “father of Puerto Rican public education” – lived the Christian virtues in a heroic way and is venerable.
“Maestro Rafael,” as he is widely known in his island home, joins Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago as the second Puerto Rican being considered for canonization.
Cordero, who was of African ancestry, was born in San Juan in 1790 and died there in 1868. He founded and operated a free school for poor children of all races.
Gathering documentation for his canonization cause posed challenges. Unlike the cause for Blessed Carlos (1918-1963), there were no contemporaries of Cordero to interview about having witnessed his good works, nor was there a body of his own writings to evaluate.
But Cordero’s acts of charity and piety were so well known within his own time, there was plenty written about him in the San Juan Archdiocese’s archives and in secular historical records.
Cordero’s sainthood cause was formally opened in 2002, after Abbot Oscar Rivera, a Benedictine monk who was postulator of Blessed Carlos’ cause at the diocesan level, gained San Juan Archbishop Roberto O. Gonzalez’s approval. Soon after, the Maestro Rafael Circle was formed as the cause’s research team.
“The high volume of data (about Cordero) contained in the archdiocesan archives” was an advantage, Abbot Rivera told Catholic News Service in an interview at his monastery in Humacao. “Although Rafael did not produce any writings of his own, there were more than 1,000 pages about him for our consideration.”
Cordero’s reason for not leaving any writings himself actually gives a hint about his character: His piety was as strong as his drive to teach the poor.
“I don’t write anything in this life because I don’t want to remember today what I did yesterday,” a church document quotes him as saying. “My wishes are that the night would erase all worthy deeds that I was able to do during the day.”
Residing in a Spanish colony where the laws prohibited education for slaves, he opened his home to children of all races and social positions for a free education. Then age 20, he said his intention was twofold: to pass on to his fellow blacks – his slave grandfather married a freed black – the education he received from his parents, and to devote his work to his deep Christian values.
Cordero’s school was a tobacco workshop. His students shared a small area while he lectured, dictated lessons and verbally tested them. Whenever they needed his help, he would take a break from chopping, twisting and rolling cigars.
In an average school day, he covered catechism, faith, morality and specific prayers. The ambiance was reinforced by images on the wall of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Anthony of Padua – whom he had adopted as his personal patron saints – as well as a large crucifix.
He never married, living out much of his adult life with his sisters. Prayer and work were Cordero’s daily routine, guided by the Gospel maxim “Teach those who do not know,” and reinforced by reciting the rosary.
Cordero’s “teaching methodology … established a liberating initiative, a foundational precedent and a challenge to the political-economic intelligence of his era that supported and was behind the pro-slave economy,” reads a document issued by the Maestro Rafael Circle as part of preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico in 2013.
“It was a truly peaceful, nonviolent challenge, an original, valiant, and sacrificed witness full of fine sensibility, rooted on Gospel teachings that refer us back to the rich millennial Christian tradition,” says the document.
Cordero’s life took a difficult turn around 1845 with the death of his sister Celestina, his closest confidant. Two years later, Gov. Juan Prim Prats took over administration of the island, starting an immediate repression of the black population.
Knowing blacks formed the largest group in Puerto Rico at the time and fearing rebellion by them against the whites, Prim decreed the “Bando Negro” law “to justify any disproportioned aggression against blacks, be they free or slaves, due to any type of aggression on their part.”
Curiously, documents show Prim visited Cordero’s school several times and overall said he found it “to his satisfaction.”
Cordero outlasted Prim’s one year of terror, and his fame steadily grew as saintly teacher of children and moral teacher of society at large.
“Many wanted their children studying with the maestro,” said Abbot Rivera. “The rich wanted to pay for the education,” but Cordero “initially didn’t accept it.”
Later, he did take the money so he could “maintain the school’s continuity and to help his poor children,” the abbot added.
Cordero’s close ties with the Catholic Church resulted in a wealth of documentation about him in local archives. Historical secular data on the layman – drawn from his outreach to the general population – fills more volumes. All of the material was compiled into the “positio,” a book-sized document approved and signed by Archbishop Gonzalez and turned over to the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
According to Abbot Rivera, a turnover in postulators for the cause delayed its advancement. Eventually, a Spanish priest, Fr. Ildefonso Moriones, a Discalced Carmelite, took over as postulator.
Even people in Spain knew about this humble teacher and the prominent place he held in his own country, said Abbot Rivera. “At the time of death, Maestro Rafael had no immediate family, but San Juan and the Puerto Rican people had adopted him as their teacher.”