by Jay Chin
On December 9, Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of Servant of God Rafael Cordero Molina, moving him one more step towards canonization, now with the title ‘Venerable’. The cause for canonization of Rafael Cordero began in 2002 with Benedictine abbot Oscar Rivera, who was in charge of presenting the historic evidence and testimonies of his holiness.
Ven. Rafael Cordero was born in 1790 to the artist Lucas Cordero and his wife Rita, who were responsible for both the secular and religious education of their three children. As an adult, he established a school in San Juan, where he offered free primary education to all boys, regardless of race or financial status. He maintained the school by working as a shoemaker and cigar maker when classes were not in session. His lessons included not only letters and numbers, but also catechesis, each day beginning with the recitation of the Salve Regina. The quality of the education was so exemplary that the governor Juan Prim y Prats visited the school and permitted him to continue teaching despite not having a teaching license, since it was impossible for him to acquire one as a black man. His fame as an educator came to such a point that prominent families from all over the island began sending their children to study under him and many of them became Puerto Rican heroes, amongst them abolitionist and autonomist Román Baldorioty de Castro and the Father of Puerto Rican Literature, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera.
His sister Celestina provided similar education for girls and is considered a true pioneer in public education in Puerto Rico. One of her students was Carmen Alcalá, who taught her son José Celso Barbosa, the Father of the Puerto Rican Statehood Movement.
If canonized, Ven. Rafael Cordero will be the second black Saint of the Americas, after St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a Peruvian lay Dominican who worked with orphans and the sick while maintaining an ascetic lifestyle. Ven. Rafael Cordero is also the second Puerto Rican to move past the initial stages for canonization, being preceded by Bl. Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago (1919-1963), a lay Benedictine who founded the Catholic Center in the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He was both an educator and a preacher. Parishes all around the island repeat his words during the Easter Vigil: “We live for this night!”
Ven. Rafael Cordero passed away in 1868, after 58 years diligent teaching. His last words were, “My God, receive me in Thy bosom!”