June 5, 2003

‘My Special Saint’

Early in April of this year, a large bound volume of documents was delivered to my office for me to study and approve before it was sent on to Rome. It concerned a New York priest whom the Congregation of Saints was being asked to consider for sainthood.

One evening after supper, I sat down to plow through the volume. It contained reports, testimonies and testimonials in Latin, Spanish, Italian and English, all about Reverend Félix Varela, a pastor serving in lower Manhattan in the mid-1800s.

Looking through the table of contents, I anticipated a rather tedious reading experience; and I could not have been more mistaken. The tale that emerged from the volume of documents was exciting and, above all, inspiring. Here it is in broadest strokes.

Félix Francisco José Maria de la Concepción Varela y Morales was born in Havana on Nov. 20, 1788. His father was a Spanish military officer assigned to Cuba; and his mother, the daughter of such an officer.

By the age of six, Félix had lost both of his parents. Thus, he was reared by grandparents and other relatives until in his late teenage years, when he entered the seminary of the Diocese of Havana. On Dec. 21, 1811, he was ordained by the Bishop of the Diocese, Don Juan José de Espada y Fernández de Landa, a dedicated shepherd of souls whom he greatly admired.

Because of his extraordinary intellectual gifts, Father Varela was assigned to teach in the seminary shortly after ordination. During this period of his life, he earned degrees in philosophy, theology, chemistry and civil law, all the while editing several reviews and publishing a number of books, one of them being a three-volume course in philosophy that remained the standard philosophy textbook in Cuban universities and seminaries for many years. By the age of 33, he was widely considered the foremost thinker and writer of Cuba.

In 1821, Father Varela was chosen to represent Cuba in the Cortes or parliament of Spain. He did all he could to avoid the assignment but finally acquiesced when his bishop insisted that both Spain and Cuba needed him.

The young priest sailed to Spain on an overcrowded frigate that was escorted by two Spanish vessels of war. Throughout his voyage he attended to the spiritual needs of his fellow passengers during the day and in the evening accompanied their singing and dancing on the violin, an instrument he had mastered as a boy.

Once in Spain, Father Varela joined forces with those in the Cortes who were championing socially responsible proposals, many of which were quite unacceptable in certain quarters. Among the proposals were the abolition of slavery, equal education for men and women, an end to racial discrimination, constitutional government for all Spanish colonies and a fundamental reform of Spanish criminal law.

The King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, an inept and capricious monarch, reacted violently to all such ideas. Accordingly, in 1823 he dissolved the Cortes, revoked the Spanish constitution and had over 1,000 "reformers" arrested and executed.

Fortunately, Father Varela escaped to Cadiz by land, made his way to Gibraltar by sea and managed to gain passage on a freighter bound for New York with a cargo of almonds and salt. Though he earnestly desired to return to his native Cuba, this was clearly unthinkable. For all the Draconian measures of the Spanish king had been swiftly and forcibly imposed upon the colonies under his rule.

In New York, the first resident Bishop, John Connolly, a Dominican from Ireland who had worked for many years in Rome, was hesitant to accept Father Varela into the diocese because of petitions to the United States government from the Spanish crown against "the dangerous Cuban reformer." Thus, the priest traveled to Philadelphia to see if he might receive an assignment there. Shortly after his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love, an attempt was made on his life by an assassin in the pay of the governor of Cuba. The positions he had rightly and courageously taken in Spain were stalking his path wherever he went.

Nonetheless, in 1825, Bishop Connolly, urgently in need of clergy, granted Father Varela the priestly faculties of the Diocese of New York and appointed him a curate at the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan. The refugee and "dangerous reformer" was now fluent in English and ready to serve the People of God with unlimited energy and in close collaboration with his pastor, Reverend John Power, with whom he quickly formed a close and productive friendship.

In 1827, the curate of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was named pastor of Christ Church Parish, whose house of worship, not far from the cathedral, had been purchased from a Protestant congregation. To avoid the manifold problems of trusteeism that were causing immense damage across the land, Father Varela registered the deed of the church in the name of the bishop, thus establishing a plan of ecclesiastical oversight that happily became the rule throughout the diocese.

In addition to his parish duties, the new pastor wrote articles for several English and Spanish monthly and weekly publications, prepared a new edition of his three-volume work on philosophy, composed a catechism for the diocese, opened day schools for boys and for girls, created a diocesan newspaper and established an orphanage that was staffed by the Sisters of Charity and largely funded by parishioners of Irish heritage, who constituted the largest ethnic group in his flock.

During this period, Father Varela, now considered one of the leading citizens of New York, was named vicar general of the diocese along with his friend, Father Power. During this period, too, he struggled mightily to gain public assistance for Catholic school children, succeeded in forming several helpful relationships with Protestant leaders, both clergy and lay, and became a hero throughout the city for his daily care of victims of a cholera epidemic in 1832.

In that same year of 1832, Father Varela’s parish was divided; the new parish of St. James was created; and Father Varela was appointed to found a parish on Mott Street, which he named Transfiguration of Our Lord. The church building, like that of his former parish, was purchased from another Protestant congregation.

For the next 25 years, the Very Reverend Félix Varela, pastor and vicar general, served a parish that included Irish, Poles, Germans, Austrians, Swiss, French, Spanish and Cubans. His accomplishments on behalf of all of them are too many to be adequately recounted here. He wrote extensively in the areas of philosophy, theology and spirituality. He edited magazines and newspapers for adults and children. He brought parish missions to the diocese. He won a place for Catholic chaplains in public hospitals and charitable institutions. He entered into all manner of controversies about Church doctrine – always, however, in a spirit of understanding and fairness. He preached the need of religious schools for children and youth. He formed valuable alliances with the scientists of the City of New York, such as André Parmentier, the founder of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. And he served as theologian to both Bishop DuBois and Archbishop Hughes. There was hardly a sector of New York life in which he was not somehow involved.

But apart from all of this, the pastor of Transfiguration parish exhibited a level of charity and sanctity that made him a legend – a beloved legend. From the aforementioned volume of documents about him that I was asked to review, story after story tumbles forth. He gave away everything he had, even his clothes when someone needed them. A victim of asthma throughout his time in New York and of consumption in his final years, he never let up caring for the sick, the immigrant and the outcast. In the estimate of all, his quiet, gentle goodness simply knew no limit.

Even today, Transfiguration parish continues to thrive. Its pastor is a New Yorker of Italian heritage who instructs and serves his people in English, Spanish and two dialects of Chinese. Nor should this come as a surprise. For the parish has never ceased to be a haven for new arrivals in our city who need guidance, understanding and – above all – acceptance and love.

The parish church is in perfect order and perfect repair, as is the packed parish school. Father Varela could leave his resting place in the Great Hall of the University of Havana, return to Mott Street, and feel very much at home. The reason is, of course, clear: his spirit never left the place – a spirit of self-sacrifice, love for learning and deep, genuine holiness.

A few days before penning this article, I was saying a brief prayer in the courtyard of Transfiguration School before the exquisite life-size statue of Father Félix Varela that I had the privilege of inaugurating last October. A young Chinese came up behind me and, clearing his throat to gain my attention, announced with a broad smile. "He’s our special saint." I turned, shook his hand and replied, "He’s mine, too."

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York