FLATONIA, Texas — The birth of Raphael’s Refuge in Flatonia is a supernatural story that parallels Mary’s fiat: It exists because Mildred “Midge” Elam said yes to God.
The refuge in the Diocese of Victoria, Texas, is a regional a monument to babies who have died.
Elam said she had been active in pro-life ministry since the time of Roe v. Wade. When she lived in Austin, she was part of a group called Austin Rescue and would go to pray at Texas abortion clinics. A trip was planned to pray at an abortion provider clinic in Corpus Christi and she was going with a group. But one by one the others canceled and she drove there alone.
On the way home out of the blue, she said, she heard Jesus ask her, “Will you build the monument?” The voice was internal as was the image of the monument placed on her heart. “I was very afraid it was my imagination,” she said.
After the seed was planted, not much happened for a while. She prayed and sketched and wondered how and where and when all this might happen. One might look at it as a gestational period.
Eventually she moved to Flatonia, a town of about 1,300. She had inherited property there from her mother and it was the place where the monument could be built.
“I figured I had to live there if I was going to do this,” she told The Catholic Lighthouse, Victoria’s diocesan newspaper.
The property is just outside the town and kind of out of the way, but it is at the center of the region it was built to serve, a halfway point between Waco and Corpus from north to south, and halfway between Houston and San Antonio.
But then there was work. A teacher and counselor, she kept busy and had no extra time. She said she had been separated from her husband for 19 years and felt she had to work to make ends meet.
There came a point, though, when she decided to file for divorce and discovered that she was entitled to half of the retirement accrued during the years they were married.
After that, she was able to focus on building the monument. And God provided help through the gifts and talents of friends who were in the right place when she needed them.
The monument is designed in the shape of a monstrance, which is a receptacle where the Eucharist is placed for adoration. The path leading to the front door of the chapel and the roads leading to the walkway form the base of the monstrance.
She said one day when she was discouraged about the progress, she looked up as three airplanes flew over, bathed in golden sunlight. She knew then that the monument would be done in three phases and she realized it was beneath a flight path from San Antonio to Houston.
Looking down from above you can see the monstrance.
“Anybody in the world can Google it and they can see the monstrance,” Elam said.
Inside the chapel, behind the altar, is a mural with the Archangel Raphael in the center holding a tiny infant. The archangel is found in the Book of Tobit. Coming to Tobit in the form of a human, he agrees to help the blinded man by accompanying his son, Tobiah, to retrieve some inheritance in another city.
When Tobiah bathes in the Tigris River, a fish attacks him, and the angel tells him to seize the fish and bring it with them. The fish’s organs, at the direction of Raphael, are used to repel a demon and heal blindness.
Elam chose to make the image of Raphael carrying an infant across the water and decided to include the fish, which is a bull shark. She based the image on one she found online. “It isn’t scary at all. It looks like it’s smiling,” she said.
Raphael’s prayer shawl was not what she intended at first. Prompted by a visiting friend’s remark that it resembled a Jewish prayer shawl, she found out more about such a shawl — known as “tallit.” She completed it with the braided tassels that, in Jewish tradition, are tied a certain way to represent the commandments of the Old Testament.
Light plays a big part in the monument. The cross in the front of the building is called the Cross of Light. The names of babies who have died are etched in glass blocks that form the walls so that they are sort of floating in the light.
“I see those blocks as representing their souls,” Elam said.
Elam said she realized that on the summer solstice, when the light of day lasts longer than any other day of the year, something phenomenal happens. Through one of the glass panes in the cupola a beam of morning light comes through at 10:10 and shines directly on the face of the Archangel Raphael and slowly descends until it rests on the face of the infant in his arms.
Other times of the year the light with highlight Scriptures written on scrolls painted on either side of the archangel. None of that was intentional during the building of the monument, but people gather on that day to witness the event.
In the center of the chapel is a small pool, the pool of mercy, designed for people to walk through as a cleansing of guilt and shame for those who have been involved in abortion and need a more tangible sense of God’s mercy. It also is inspired by a Jewish purification ritual.
Father Greg Korenek, director of pro-life concerns for the Diocese of Victoria, said, the first time he visited Raphael’s Refuge, “I was struck with a sense of awe.”
“Raphael’s Refuge is a beautiful testament to the sacredness and dignity of human life, even from its very beginning in the womb of the mother,” he said. “The entire refuge … gives one the distinct awareness that God is present in this place. For those who come specifically in search of healing and comfort as they mourn the death of a baby, this is the perfect place.”
The monument is still not complete, walls radiating from the chapel are being constructed and will include more glass bricks to memorialize babies who have died. Elam plans a chaplain’s quarters and a visitor center as well.
“God will provide,” she said.
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Jones is editor of The Catholic Lighthouse, newspaper of the Diocese of Victoria.