July 25, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Felix Varela

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series of columns)

Father Felix Varela was well known in his native Cuba before he fled for his life in 1823.

He was a priest who had earned degrees in philosophy, theology, chemistry and civil law. He taught in the seminary in Cuba while editing several journals and publishing a number of books, one of them a three-volume course in philosophy. By the time he was 33, in 1821, he was recognized as Cuba’s foremost thinker and writer.

In 1821, he was appointed to represent Cuba at the Court of the Constitutional Monarchy in Madrid, Spain. There, he advocated the abolition of slavery, racial equality, equal education for boys and girls, constitutional government for Spanish colonies, and reform of Spain’s criminal laws. But when the Absolute Monarchy returned to power and executed more than a thousand reformers, he quickly took a ship for New York City.

At first, New York’s Bishop John DuBois hesitated about accepting this reformer, but, after checking with Church leaders in Cuba, welcomed him to the diocese. After assignments to two other parishes, in 1832 the bishop appointed Father Varela the founding pastor of the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, where he served for 25 years. His parish was composed of immigrants—Irish, Poles, Germans, Austrians, Swiss, French, Spanish and Cubans.

As he had done in Cuba, he wrote. Now it was articles for several English and Spanish periodicals. He revised his course in philosophy and wrote a catechism for the diocese. He also began a diocesan newspaper, and founded the first Spanish newspaper in the United States.

He brought parish missions to the diocese. He served as theologian to both Bishop DuBois and his successor, Archbishop John Hughes, and eventually became vicar general of the archdiocese.

But he did far more. He established an orphanage staffed by the Sisters of Charity. He advocated for public assistance for Catholic school children. He became a hero in the city during a cholera epidemic in 1832 because of his care for the victims. He won approval of having Catholic chaplains in the city’s hospitals and charitable institutions. He formed alliances with the city’s scientists, including Andre Parmentier, the founder of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He organized the New York Catholic Temperance Association for those addicted to alcohol.

During an era of severe anti-Catholicism, Father Varela courageously defended the Catholic Church through his published articles. He also wrote about human rights, cooperation between English and Spanish-speaking communities, and the importance of education. Through it all, he continued to work tirelessly for Cuba’s political independence from Spain.

Father Varela was worn out by his early 60s, and suffered from illnesses. He became less active and eventually moved to St. Augustine, Fla., where he died in 1853 at age 65. His body was taken back to Cuba and buried in the Great Hall of the University of Havana.

In 1997, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in Father Varela’s name and image for his extraordinary contributions. †

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