Fifth in a Series
Since its inception in 1808, the Diocese (later Archdiocese) of New York can count among its priests and bishops spiritual giants, caring and generous pastors, scholars, admirals, social reformers, brick and mortar titans—and Father Felix Varela, the “Benjamin Franklin of Cuba.” Varela was born on Nov. 20, 1788 in Havana, Cuba. Varela's father, a Spanish subject and his mother, a native of Cuba, both died by the time Felix reached age three. Felix was raised in St. Augustine, Fla., by his grandfather, Lieutenant Bartholome Morales, who in 1796, served briefly as interim governor of East Florida, 13 years after Florida had been returned to Spanish rule after the defeat of the British by the fledgling United States. Destined for a military career, young Felix sensed a calling to the priesthood and, at age 14, returned to Havana to attend San Carlos y San Ambrosio Royal Seminary. Varela was ordained a priest in 1811 for the Diocese of San Cristobal de la Havana and within a year, the academically gifted Father Varela was appointed to the faculty of the seminary in Havana.
Father Varela instituted necessary reforms at the Havana seminary, such as a renewal of the study of Thomistic philosophy in the seminary (two generations before Pope Leo XIII issued his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, reviving the study of scholasticism in seminary training). Although a philosophy student and teacher by training, Varela had a keen interest in such varied subjects as politics, economics, history, physics, chemistry and agriculture.
In 1821, Varela was elected as a colonial delegate to the Spanish Cortes (parliament) where he labored in Madrid for the abolition of slavery and increased autonomy in the Spanish colonies. Varela and like-minded members of the Cortes evoked the ire of King Ferdinand VII, who subsequently dismantled the Cortes. Varela fled Spain and, barred from Spanish-ruled Cuba, sought political asylum in the United States. Varela arrived in New York in December 1823 and spent the next two years translating Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice into Spanish, and studying chemistry and agriculture.
In 1825, Varela moved to Philadelphia, at that time the intellectual capital of the United States. There, Father Varela founded El Habanero, believed to be the first Spanish-Catholic newspaper in the United States. Varela was one of the first Cuban intellectuals to call for independence from Spain. A proponent of what he called a “war of reason,” Varela eschewed violence and bloodshed. One year later, Father Varela was welcomed to New York by Father John Power, who had become apostolic administrator of the Diocese of New York upon the death of the second bishop of New York, John Connolly, O.P. Father Power discerned that this Cuban priest-intellectual and patriot would prove a great asset to the fledgling diocese which encompassed all of New York state and northern New Jersey. According to the late Msgr. Florence Cohalan, author of “A Popular History of the Archdiocese of New York,” Varela was the first Spanish-speaking priest to serve in the Diocese of New York.
Once in New York, Father Varela effortlessly transitioned from academia and politics to parish work, serving among the Irish community at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street. Shortly thereafter, Varela solicited funds from friends to purchase nearby Christ Episcopal Church on Ann Street. In 1833, Christ Church was disbanded and the existing congregation became St. James parish on James Street and Transfiguration Church on Mott Street, the latter served by Father Varela. His pastoral success, particularly with the burgeoning Irish immigrant community in New York, attracted the attention of the third bishop of New York, John Dubois who, in 1829, named Varela vicar general of the Diocese of New York.
On Sept. 20, 1829, Bishop Dubois left New York for Rome, returning to the United States on Nov. 20, 1831. During his two-year absence, Father Varela served as administrator of the diocese, and represented Dubois at the First Provincial Council of Baltimore (1829) and the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore (1837)—the 19th century precursors to the modern-day bi-annual meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In 1831, Father Varela was asked to participate as a founding member of New York University, an offer he declined. Ever the parish priest, Varela counted as one of his closest friends, Father Alessandro Muppiatti, a Carthusian monk who left Italy in search of political asylum in New York. Believed to be the first Italian priest to serve in New York, Father Muppiatti served as Father Varela’s assistant at Transfiguration from 1842 until the former’s death in 1846.
Exhausted from pastoral and administrative duties, and emotionally spent from his energetic and passionate defense of the Church in the wake of a growing and virulent anti-Catholicism in the United States, Father Varela returned to St. Augustine in 1850. There, Varela took as his residence a small wooden shed adjacent to St. Augustine Cathedral school, living in sickness, obscurity and crushing poverty. A group of Cuban friends heard about Varela’s plight, collected a large sum of money, and sent the gift to Varela, only to find that Father Varela had died on Feb. 25, 1853. The money was used to build a mausoleum in the city’s historic Tolomato Cemetery. Before the outbreak of World War I, Varela’s remains were transferred from St. Augustine and reinterred at the University of Havana.
In 1983, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints charged the Archdiocese of Havana with the investigations into the heroic sanctity of Father Varela. In the late 1990s, Father Varela was declared “Servant of God,” and on April 12, 2012, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints granted Varela the title “Venerable.” Well on the path to beatification and sainthood, this hero of the Cuban people made his mark as the apostle to the Irish immigrants in New York and a beacon of religious, political and intellectual thought and freedom.
ABOUT THIS SERIES The articles in this series on priests who have served in the Archdiocese of New York are planned to run monthly throughout 2021. Father Michael Morris, pastor of Regina Coeli parish in Hyde Park, and Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, emeritus professor of Church history at Fordham University, will write the profiles.