By Isabel Soto Mayedo | Cubanow.net
Cubanow.- Father Felix Varela �a principal figure in the history of Cuban culture and nationhood- was also a major contributor to the growth of the Catholic Church in the United States, according to numerous historians specialized in the development of religion.
Father Varela landed in New York on December 17, 1823, where he arrived as a deportee from Spain, coinciding with one of Catholicism’s principal moments of expansion on North American soil.
This boom was sparked by the avalanche of European Catholic emigres, who mainly established themselves in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Varela went to New York as a political exile, and not under orders from his ecclesiastical superiors. Historians acknowledge his main contribution as that of an expert consultant to the embryonic church in the Baltimore Conferences, on the need for Cuba’s total independence from Spain.
Historians also stress the importance of the pastoral work carried out in New York by Varela, who had previously been a professor at Havana’s Royal Pontifical Seminary of San Carlos y San Ambrosio.
Western Mexico �essentially Catholic from Spanish colonization- had not yet been annexed to the Federation of States newly created following the War of Independence from Great Britain. Louisiana was close to becoming a member of the Federation. Florida, in the final decades of the 16th Century, became the center of Catholic expansion in the southern part of the United States.
These territories, submitted to Spain’s colonial control at some time during their history, would contribute a great population devoted to the religion inherited from the Spaniards, thereby strengthening the institution.
Sensitized by these circumstances, the Cuban priest placed the wisdom and experience he accumulated in Havana and Madrid at the service of the growing US church.
The exemplary theological and canonical work of Father Varela with the rising Catholic Church in the Northeastern US, earned him an appointment as Parochial Vicar, Chaplain and Vicar-General of New York.
He also published many religious and cultural texts; founded catechist and general schools for Irish immigrants, and orphanages for poor children, without abandoning his activities on behalf of Cuban independence.
Varela was a very cultured person. In his native Havana, he acquired merits both as a professor, and for his active participation in the Friends of the Country Economic Society and other cultural associations.
In both the Cuban capital and in New York, he was considered an honest man and an exemplary Catholic, credited with the renewing philosophical studies and standard of ethics, for the first time with a national sensibility.
He proclaimed that the first thing one must do is “learn to think with our own minds” and to accept our thoughts with responsible freedom, one should seek education by all possible means.
Physically fragile but strong in spirit, Father Varela defended the concept that correct ideas support individual morality and must be carried out as timely actions in the public interest.
His determined stance as Havana’s Deputy to the Cadiz Court �which decreed the destitution of King Fernando VII in 1822- showed the symbiosis between his ideas and his actions.
The Catholic Church �expanding since the first half of the 19th Century through northeastern United States- owes much to the Cuban priest.
For these reasons, Varela is one of the bridges of light which connect the people of Cuba and the United States, and through which one can travel safely, according to the words of Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Chaplain of the Church of Saint Augustine (Playa, Havana City).