Felix Varela y Morales was born on November 20, 1788 in Havana, Cuba. Because his mother died in childbirth, Felix as raised by his grandfather, Lieutenant Bartolomo Morales, in St. Augustine, Florida. Morales, who was in charge of the military forces in Spanish Florida, had a military career in mind for Felix. Felix, however, refused his offer of an education at the military academy in Spain, instead moving to Havana at the age of 14 to study for the priesthood. Felix was ordained at the age of 23 in Havana’s cathedral to serve the Diocese of San Cristobal de la Habana.
Fr. Varela soon took a position as a professor in the seminary, teaching philosophy, physics, and chemistry. He established a literary society and published a book on philosophy. He was the teacher of many who would become prominent in Cuban history, including Jose de la Luz y Caballero, who would say of Fr Varela, “As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will have to remember him, the one who taught us how to think.”
In 1821, Fr. Varela traveled to Madrid to participate in the Cortes Generales in Spain. He joined his name to a petition calling for the independence of Latin America from the Spanish Crown and wrote an essay in favor of the abolition of slavery in Cuba. In 1823, however, the French invaded Spain and overthrew the liberal government. King Ferdinand VII was reestablished in power and was brutally oppressive to all opposition. Fr. Varela was sentenced to death for the views he expressed two years earlier. Before he could be arrested, he managed to escape, first to Gibraltar, then to the United States, where he arrived in Philadelphia, eventually settling in New York.
While in the United States, Fr. Varela published newspapers and many articles on subjects such as human rights, religious tolerance, education and the need for the Spanish and English speaking communities to live in peace. In 1827, he founded the Church of the Immigrant in the impoverished Five Points district of Manhattan. Today, known as the Church of the Transfiguration, the parish continues to serve many immigrants. Fr. Varela became renowned in New York for his charitable works, his ministry to the ill during a cholera epidemic, his ecumenical spirit and respect for non-Catholics, his great devotion to the Mystical Body of Christ, and the missions he preached each year in anticipation of the Feast of Corpus Christi.
In 1837, Fr. Varela was named Vicar General of the Diocese of New York, which at that time included the entire state of New York and northern New Jersey, as well. Proficient in languages, Fr. Varela learned the Irish language and was instrumental in helping the Irish acclimate to their new country at the beginning of the great migration of the Irish to the United States.
Fr. Varela served the committee of American bishops that published the Baltimore Catechism, and he was awarded a doctorate in Theology by St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1848, Fr. Varela returned to St. Augustine, Florida for health reasons. He had developed asthma in his older years. He spent the last five years of his life in Florida, dying on February 27, 1853. He was buried in the Tolomato Cemetery in St. Augustine, but in 2012, his body was transferred to the Aula Magna at the University of Havana in Cuba.
In 2012, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints declared Fr. Felix Varela “Venerable.”
Ven. Felix Varela, pray for us!
Sources: “Felix Varela” Wikipedia;
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