Raphael House of San Francisco exists today thanks to the hard-work and dedication of our founders.
Co-founder Ella Hoffman Rigney was an accomplished philanthropist, fundraiser, and volunteer before coming to Raphael House. She came from an upper middle-class family in New York City, where her father was a prominent statistician and co-founder of the American Cancer Society. Ella shocked her father when she started doing health surveys in New York’s overcrowded tenement housing units. She interviewed mothers, mostly, and the lack of proper ventilation or places for children to play stayed with her for a lifetime.
In 1927, she took hold of the struggling American Cancer Society and turned it into the educational and fundraising juggernaut it became by the time she retired in 1957. She was also an outspoken civil rights supporter, volunteering for the NAACP, and as a VISTA volunteer, she helped run daycare facilities for migrant workers in North Carolina and Oregon.
Her second career was building the Raphael House homeless family shelter in San Francisco. “I thought educating the public about the need for a family shelter would be easy compared to cancer,” Mrs. Rigney said. “I was wrong.”
Mrs. Rigney was intrigued by the first Raphael House—located on Gough and McAllister Streets in San Francisco—started by the Holy Order of MANS, a non-sectarian group of volunteers dedicated to service to the community.
The first iteration of Raphael House served homeless women and children. Inspired by their work in the community, Ella joined the Holy Order of MANS at the age of 82, taking life vows at the age of 83 in 1975. Ella retained her membership at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
Recognizing there was no homeless shelter for whole families in Northern California before Raphael House, she said, “I felt we had to do something to keep families together to help them as a whole.” With years of fundraising experience under her belt, Ella expected only to give advice to the organization, but due to her vision and dedication, she ended up as Raphael House’s Executive Director.
Her vision was to build a social service agency that she and other volunteers from the Order would be willing to live in, which she did. Ella led 47 Order members in building a “working household” where families ate and lived together as a community. Needing more space to house families together, they moved to our current location at 1065 Sutter Street, formerly a private hospital.
"Our first step was to take in the whole family—especially to rejoin the broken ones. We concluded that each family should have its own room or rooms, depending upon the size. We do not believe a distraught family can find peace of mind if it is put in a room with a family it has never seen before. A major goal is to put the family at ease. This is to be their home for a while, and we want them to find happiness and peace in it."Ella Hoffman Rigney
By 1977, Ella and the dedicated volunteers had grown Raphael House into a home that truly fostered community. The house included rooms for up to 50 residents, two dining rooms where families could share meals, a large playroom for children, a restaurant on the first floor (Brother Juniper’s Bread Box), extracurricular activities for families, a furniture bank, and ambitious plans to build a rooftop garden.
In 1982, Ella decided that it was “ridiculous” to have a 90 year old Executive Director, so she retired. She wasn’t done yet, though. She continued to live at Raphael House, and in 1986 started our Annual Children’s Art Show. She also remained active in fundraising and speaking at our annual dinners.
In 1988, the Holy Order of MANS grew into a more traditional Eastern Orthodox sect, and renamed itself Christ the Savior Brotherhood. Ella never allowed proselytizing, but loved the daily services she attended with the brothers and sisters every morning in Raphael House’s chapel. The Raphael House chapel today is our children’s library.
Note: Today, Raphael House is a secular organization that continues to welcome all families regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, or political preference.
Ella Rigney reposed the same year that Raphael House celebrated its 20th Anniversary. An inspiration to us all, Ella Hoffman Rigney passed away peacefully on February 16, 1992, five months before her 100th birthday.
We continue to remember Ella Rigney’s century of service every year on her birthday, August 5, and through our work every day to support families experiencing homelessness. This year Raphael House celebrates 50 years of service to families experiencing crisis. This is also the 129th anniversary of Ella Rigney’s birth. Raphael House was blessed to have this amazing woman with us for so long.