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      Padre Félix Varela y Morales

(1788-1853)

A  Cuban Catholic priest who loved his country and became an Apostle for Immigrants in New York
 

 

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Book Prologue by Dr. Beatriz Varela

It is an honor for me to write the prologue for this biographical study on Father Félix Varela y Morales. There are two important reasons for feeling so honored. First, the author, Juan M. Navia was a classmate and true friend at Ruston Academy in Havana, Cuba, whom I greatly admire for his intelligence and writing skills. Secondly, the book is about an illustrious figure, loved, respected, and cherished by all, especially immigrants.  The special devotion of the Cubans continues today. In my opinion, the author has very wisely concentrated on the exile years of Father Varela in New York. The Cuban priest always venerated the dignity and freedom to which people are entitled, and he was pleased to find these attributes in New York. The thirty fruitful years that Father Varela spent in that city contributed to his being commemorated in 1997 with a U.S. Postage Stamp.

            Another accomplishment of Navia is the title of the book: An Apostle for Immigrants. There is no doubt that just like José Martí is the Apostle of Cuban Independence, it is right to classify Father Varela as the Apostle of the Immigrants. It is significant, and he stresses it, that the year that Father Varela died in St. Augustine, 1853, was the year in which José Martí, his ideological heir apparent, was born.

            Although Father Varela's years in exile in the New York of the 1800's have made him a paradigm for all people  who have experienced the trauma of living in exile, Latinos, Europeans, Asians, Africans, Navia does not forget Father Varela's years in Cuba, and he devotes a whole chapter to these formative years. Father Varela was born in Havana in 1788. As a child he was taken by his parents to St. Augustine, then a Spanish possession, where he completed his early education. Still very young, he returned to Cuba. He rejected his family's military career stating, "I  wish to be a soldier of Jesus Christ, the Lord. I do not wish to kill men but to save souls." He entered the famous San Carlos Seminary, where he was ordained a priest in 1811 by Bishop Espada y Landa, who was well-known for improving education in Cuba and for ordering the construction of the Columbus' cemetery, admired by tourists from all over the world for its architecture. Several years before his ordination, the Bishop had named Father Varela Professor of Philosophy at the San Carlos Seminary, ordering him to "Take a broom and sweep away everything that is not useful." Anxious to instill new life in philosophy studies and to make them accessible to all educated people, Father Varela started teaching in Spanish in 1813. He had already published in correct and elegant Latin two volumes of his Institutiones Philosophiae Eclectiae ... dealing with Logics and Metaphysics. The third and fourth volumes on Ethics were written entirely in Spanish, not Latin. The culmination of this productive stage of Father Varela's philosophical years is his magnificent three-volume textbook Lecciones de Filosofía, which went through several editions, and was adopted by many universities in Spanish America.

            As a professor of Spanish I take much pride in recognizing Father Varela as a great innovator: he was the first to teach in Spanish, the first to write textbooks of Philosophy in Spanish, the first to introduce Science and Music at the San Carlos Seminary, the first to introduce in Spanish America new philosophers like Locke, Condillac and Descartes. Applying Bishop Landa's recommendation of using a broom, Father Varela really swept away what was useless. He defeated scholasticism and brought in modern methods based on experimentation and observation. His successes as an author and professor drew him into politics. After brilliantly winning a competition for the professorship of Constitution, Father Varela clarified at the San Carlos Seminary the laws promulgated by the Cadiz parliament in 1812.

            His studies in these topics were published as a textbook, Observaciones sobre la Constitución de la Monarquía Española, which included political economy and constitutional law. In 1821 Father Varela was elected deputy to represent Cuba in the Spanish Cortes (Parliament). Thus begins for Father Varela a second period in his life, which the author calls of transition, in Spain as a participant in the Spanish Cortes representing Havana. The other two distinctive periods of Father Varela's life are the first thirty-three years spent in Cuba, which I have briefly outlined, and the third and last period, spent as an exile in the United States.

            The years in Spain (1821-1823) were a turning point in Father Varela's life. Navia points out that the biased arguments and the frustrating debates of the Spanish Cortes, and the treason of Ferdinand the VII made Father Varela realize that the Spanish monarch would never listen to the political, social and economic demands of Cubans. Unable to return to his beloved and oppressed Cuba, and threatened by the Spanish government, Father Varela was forced to go into exile in New York., where he spent the last thirty years of his life, with exception of the last three years in which, for health reasons, he had migrated to St. Augustine. There he died in 1853.

            Before analyzing the years Father Varela was a pastor and vicar in the diocese of New York,  Navia emphasizes several points of Father Varela's formative years. I am enumerating them:

            1) During his pre-exile years, Father Varela had excellent teachers. In St Augustine Father Michael O'Reilly not only provided the elements of Latin and Music, but also the religious instruction and example that would strengthen  his vocational call to the priesthood. At the San Carlos Seminary Father Varela found extraordinary teachers, such as Father Agustín Caballero and Bishop Espada y Landa, whose liberal and progressive ideas would greatly influence Father Varela.

            2) Father Varela was a magnificent teacher, as is shown by the names of those he taught: José Antonio Saco, José de la Luz y Caballero, Domingo del Monte, Gaspar Cisneros Betancourt.

            3) This study highlights that there were four values or principles that guided Father Varela to excel and to achieve his outstanding historical position: a) his deep religious faith, b) his love for Cuba and its youth, c) his conviction of the reality of human dignity, and d) his belief that all men and women have the right to be free.

            Navia makes it clear that to understand Father Varela, it is essential to consider the sum total of his life. His exile years added a special magnitude to his value as a spiritual person. He missed his dear Cuba, his classes at the Seminary, his friends and students, the political contributions in Spain, and yet he never stopped helping the poor in New York. He aided the Catholic immigrants, especially those of Irish and German origins. He wrote incessantly as an apologist for the faith in numerous periodicals and published two volumes of his notable Cartas a Elpidio to advise Cuban youth. He also published El Habanero, in which he put forth his ideas on the independence of Cuba, and a fifth edition of his Lecciones de Filosofía, updated with all the advances made by European and North-American philosophers. He established a co-educational school in which, in addition to the traditional curriculum of the period, the children were taught two foreign languages. He debated hostile Protestant leaders firmly, but with respect. His practical sense and natural science knowledge allowed him to develop a contraption to be installed in the wheels of carriages to minimize the noise they made as they rode on the stone pavements, and also an apparatus to improve air quality in hospitals. Father Varela was an extraordinary knowledgeable man ahead of his time and a priest that was driven by his faith and his heart to help and serve those around him and those far away in the Island, he called his motherland, Cuba, la Patria. No wonder the Apostle for the Immigrants  stands as a paradigm for the youth of yesterday, today and tomorrow!

            One parting word: I must confess that although I have the same last name and would be honored to be related to Father Varela, I am his admirer, but not his kin. This book is interesting, well documented, and instructive. I heartily recommend it to those seeking inspiration and understanding of the life of a man who understood the meaning of service and unconditional love.

Beatriz Varela Ph. D. Professor Emeritus, University of New Orleans

Académica de Número, Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española.

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Updated: February 1, 2010