Félix Varela

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US postal stamp in honor of Felix Varela issued in 1997

The Venerable Félix Varela y Morales (November 20, 1788–February 27, 1853) was a Cuban-born Roman Catholic priest and independence leader in his homeland who is regarded as a notable figure in the Catholic Church in both Cuba and the United States.

Life[edit]

Varela was born in Havana, Cuba, then still part of New Spain, and grew up in St. Augustine, Florida, the grandson of Lieutenant Bartolomé Morales, the commander of military forces in Spanish Florida, who was stationed there and who helped to raise Felix after the death of his mother in childbirth. As a teenager, he refused his grandfather's offer to send him to a military academy in Spain, returning to Cuba, where he studied to become a priest at San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana, the only seminary in Cuba.[1] He also studied at the University of Havana. At the age of 23 he was ordained in the Cathedral of Havana for the Diocese of San Cristóbal de la Habana.

Joining the seminary faculty within a year of his ordination, he taught philosophy, physics and chemistry. In his position there, he taught many illustrious Cubans, including José Antonio Saco, Domingo del Monte, José de la Luz y Caballero and Felipe Poey. Referring to Varela, De la Luz said: "As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will have to remember him, the one who taught us how to think". José Martí's teacher, Rafael María de Mendive, was also Varela's student. During this period, Varela established a literary society and published Miscelánea filosófica,[2] a popular book on philosophy, before he was 30 years old.[1]

In 1821 Varela was chosen to represent Cuba in the Cortes Generales of Spain in Madrid, where he joined in a petition to the Crown for the independence of Latin America, and also published an essay which argued for the abolition of slavery in Cuba. For such ideas, after the French invasion of Spain in 1823 overthrew the liberal government of Spain and restored King Ferdinand VII who then brutally suppressed all opposition, he was sentenced to death by the government. Before he could be arrested, however, he fled, first to Gibraltar, then to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life, settling in New York City.[1]

In New York, Varela was the founder of El Habanero, the first Spanish-language newspaper in the United States, publishing many articles about human rights, as well as multiple essays on religious tolerance, cooperation between the English and Spanish-speaking communities, and the importance of education. He published other newspapers in Spanish, including El Mensajero Semanal, and also published The Protestant's Abridger and Annotator.

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. In this post, he played a major role in the way the American Church dealt with the tremendous influx of Irish refugees, which was just beginning at the time. His desire to assist those in need coupled with his gift for languages allowed him to master the Irish language in order to communicate more efficiently with many of the recent Irish arrivals.

Varela served as a theological consultant to the committee of American bishops which drew up the famous Baltimore Catechism, which began a standard teaching tool for Catholic children in the nation until the mid-20th century.[1] He was later awarded a doctorate of Theology by St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1848, worn out by his labors, Varela developed severe asthma, which led him to retire to St. Augustine, dying there five years later.[1] Nearly sixty years after his death, Varela's body was dis-interred from Tolomato Cemetery and returned to Cuba to be laid to rest in the University of Havana's Aula Magna.

Honors[edit]

The Cuban government has created an award bearing his name, entitled the Orden Félix Varela, which is given to those whom the government deems to have contributed to Cuban and worldwide culture. (See List of people awarded the Varela award.)

His name is currently associated with a project proposed by the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba, named Proyecto Varela, which was announced to the Cuban people on government-owned TV and radio stations in Cuba by United States President Jimmy Carter. In 1997 the United States Postal Service honored Varela by issuing a 32-cent commemorative stamp. Because of his experiences, many in the Cuban American exile community identify with him.

Places named after Varela[edit]

  • Felix Varela High School opened on August 28, 1999, in Miami, Florida, United States, is dedicated to the memory of Varela.
  • "Varella Avenue" in St. Augustine, Florida, is a misspelled tribute to the priest who spent his early and last years in the Ancient City.

Cause for canonization[edit]

Currently, Varela is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint, and was declared a Servant of God, recognizing his life as a devoted Catholic and a model for others in and out of the faith, and officially beginning the process.

On Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, both the Archdiocese of New York and the Archdiocese of Miami (each having significant Catholic Cuban-American populations) announced that the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints had declared Varela "Venerable", meaning he lived a virtuous life within the Catholic faith to a heroic degree and as such is worthy of praise (veneration).[1]

Now, for him to be beatified, the next stage of the process, since he is not a martyr a miracle (officially deemed to be so from an impartial theological and scientific point of view) must be proved attributable to his direct intercession. Canonization would then follow if another such miracle is declared to have occurred after the first. If canonized, he would be the first Cuban-born person to be honored on the altars of the Catholic church.

References[edit]

External links[edit]