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.