Rafaela Maria Porras was born on March 1st 1850 in Pedro-Abad, about twenty miles from Cordoba in the province of Andalusia, Spain. She was the youngest of ten children, three of whom had died in infancy. Her sister Dolores was five years her senior and she had five older brothers, Francisco, Juan Celestino, Antonio, Ramón and Enrique.
Her father, Ildefonso Porras y Gaitán and her mother, Rafaela Ailión y Castillo, were married in Adamuz in 1833 and settled in the neighbouring Pedro-Abad, raising their children in the Catholic tradition. Don Ildefonso was a well off landowner and served as Mayor of Pedro-Abad. He was well respected in the province for being generous, respectful and treating all his employees as equals. Rafaela’s caring attitude is mirrored in her father who himself died from cholera after serving his stricken neighbours following an outbreak of the disease in Pedro-Abad in 1854. The family suffered another heavy loss in 1869 with the death of their mother in February of that year. Following the deaths of their parents and the marriages of their brothers to various members of the aristocracy, Rafaela and Dolores managed the family estate. Rafaela took on this role with a distinctly humane approach by being generous in her management style, exercising charity to the poor and nursing the sick.
By 1873 Rafaela and Dolores were drawn to religious life. It was in 1874 that their long standing tradition with education began after spending periods in the Carmelite Convent and as guests of the Franciscans in Santa Cruz. Following the death of the Bishop of Cordoba in March of that year, the Administrator of the Diocese, Don Ricardo, invited Rafaela and Dolores to establish a convent and school in the city to accommodate the children of comfortably well off families. It now had to be decided what order of nuns would receive the girls as novices. The Society of Marie Réparatrice, a religious of French nuns, was invited to Cordoba to facilitate Dolores and Rafaela. The Marie Réparatice nuns arrived on March 1st 1875 and Dolores and Rafaela began as postulants with six more to follow shortly afterwards. However, the local people of Cordoba disliked the French nuns and following some significant difficulties, Archbishop Fray Ceferino of Cordoba dismissed the French nuns from the city. It is from the nucleus of the sixteen Spanish nuns that remained that Raphaela’s congregation developed.
Archbishop Ceferino then appointed Rafaela to the position of Superior of the community of nuns that remained. Rafaela chose the religious name Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart and Dolores chose the name Maria del Pilar. Rafaela and her novice companions had clear notions of their religious life and the direction in which they felt they wanted to be guided. Their intention was to base their religious life on the spirituality of Saint Ignatius Loyola. This clarity was not shared by the Archbishop however who made drastic changes to their rules. This led to the novices refusing to take their vows, leaving Cordoba by nightfall and moving to Andújar, fifty miles away.
By 1877 they settled in Madrid. Their new congregation called the Reparation Sisters of the Heart of Jesus received the full approval of the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo. The purpose of this new congregation centred on the adoration and daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Externally, the intention of the Order was to open schools for poor girls and to prepare older girls and young women for their First Communion. Rafaela worked tirelessly in establishing new foundations at Cordoba (1881), Jerez (1882), Bilbao (1885), and Zaragoza (1886) before receiving a Papal decree and formal approbation in 1886. It was as a result of this Decree of Praise in 1886 that the sisters became the Institute of Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with Raphaela as it’s first General Superior. Eventually the Order of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart would establish schools at a high societal level but they have remained faithful to their original purpose of educational work among the poor.
Rafaela resigned her office in 1893 following considerable misunderstandings with her Council. Dolores, now Maria del Pilar, then assumed the role of General Superior of the institute. Raphaela moved to Rome where she spent the remainder of her life in seclusion until her death on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 1925. Raphaela was beatified in 1952 by Pope Pius XII and canonized on January 23 1977, marking the centenary of the foundation of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.