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THE STORY OF THE CHURCH OF TRANSFIGURATION

(1801-2009)



When the Lutherans arrived in New York in the eighteenth century they attended a Dutch language Lutheran church first founded in 1664. In 1749 the German element, with a majority of nearly eight to one, was not successful in having alternate services delivered in German. They separated and established "Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church." In 1794 English-speaking descendants of these German speaking Lutherans were also unsuccessful in having alternate sermons in English. In 1801 the English speakers: "..bought a plot of ground 83 feet by 85 feet on the corner of Mott and Cross (now Park) Streets, and erected thereon a large, commodious, and substantial stone church, 55 feet in width and 76 feet in length, walls 30 feet in thickness, with galleries, at a cost of $15,000." The elevation of the site suggested the name "English Lutheran Church Zion."

After more than six years of debate about language and doctrine the English Lutheran Church congregation passed the following resolution: "Wheras many difficulties attend the upholding of the Lutheran religion among us, and wheras, that in as much as the doctrine and government of the Episcopal Church is so nearly allied to the Lutheran, and also on account of the present embarrassment of the finances of this Church... that (it) become a parish of the Protestant Episcopal Church." On Thursday, March 22, 1810, the Church was consecrated according to the rites and ceremonies of the Protestant Episcopal Church by the Right Rev. Benjamin Moore and renamed "Zion Protestant Episcopal Church."

The arrival of countless immigrant ships carrying Europe's poor made the area around Zion Church a tragedy. Charles Dickens in 1841 thus described its horrors: "near the Tombs; Worth, Baxter, and Park Streets came together making five corners or points of varying sharpness, hence the name "Five Points." It was an unwholesome district supplied with a few rickety buildings, and thickly populated with human beings of every age, color and condition." Owing to the changing character of the neighborhood, and to removal of many Protestants families to the upper part of the City, ... the permanent resuscitation of the parish in that locality was a hopeless undertaking." On January 28th, 1853, Zion Protestant Episcopal Church was sold to the Right Rev. John Hughes, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York. The Parish of the Transfiguration moved into the church building on Mott Street and the spirit of its Cuban Pastor Father Felix Varela, continued to serve the Irish, Italian and now the Chinese immigrant populations in New York. We celebrate the uninterrupted Christian serve of this "Church of Immigrants."


 
Father Felix Varela (1788-1853) Print

Félix Varela was born on November 20, 1788 in Havana. Cuba was at that time part of New Spain. He studied at the San Carlos Seminary. A highly intelligent student, in 1811, Varela was named Professor of Philosophy at the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio of Havana. On this year he also became a priest.In Cuba, Father Varela was the leading educator, philosopher and patriot of his time. He taught philosophy, chemistry, physics, theology and music. Many future Cuban leaders were his students. He advocated giving women the same education as men and introduced many teaching innovations. In 1821, Father Varela was elected to represent Cuba in the Spanish legislature. Varela recommended that Spanish colonies in Latin America be considered independent. He also asked for Cuban self-rule and an end to slavery. Two years later, marked as an enemy of the autocratic government of Ferdinand VII, the Spanish Crown condemned him to death. Before he could be arrested, he escaped and made his way to New York, where he arrived in December 1823. In New York, he was assigned by the Catholic Diocese of New York to a parish in the infamous Five Points district of the island. In this hotbed of racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, Varela was a defender of immigrant rights and of the poor Catholic Irish immigrants for 25 years. During this time, he established the Church of Immigrants, later renamed Church of the Transfiguration. In 1837, Varela was named Vicar General of the Diocese of New York, which then covered all of New York State and the northern half of New Jersey. Father Varela served as a theological consultant to the committee of American Bishops that drew up the famous Baltimore Catechism, a standard teaching tool for Catholic children in the nation until the mid-20th century. Varela was awarded a doctorate of Theology by St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. Father Félix Varela died on February 25, 1853 in St. Augustine, Florida. His remains were moved to Havana in 1912 and buried at Aula Magna, near Havana University. In 1988, on the bicentennial of his birth, the U.S. postal serviced issued a $0.32 stamp in his name. On Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared Father Varela “Venerable”, meaning he lived a virtuous life within the Catholic faith to a heroic degree and as such is worthy of praise. Father Varela is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint.

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Father Varela Memorial Print

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The Memorial consists of a statue of Father Varela surrounded by a mandorla of anodized aluminum letters that together spell out The Lord’s Prayer. The base of the sculpture is fashioned from black granite from the lot used to build the September, 11th Memorial.

The mandorla was conceived and designed by Father Andrew O’Connor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, architect Hans Roegle and Chris Knight, a Manchester, England based sculptor.

 



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