Father Felix Varela became the advocate for the Irish immigrants in New York from the 1830s to 1850s. including the famine period. There will be a celebration of his life at the Church of the Configuration, 29 Mott St, in New York, at 6:30 p.m. on November 20th.
Varela was exiled to New York from Cuba because of his advocacy of independence, abolition of slavery and equal education for women. His first teacher, an Irish priest, introduced him to Gaelic.
Some links about him on the internet:
- Varela fled to New York, the first Cuban exile. There he eventually became Vicar General of the New York Diocese. His special apostolate was to New York's recently arrived Irish immigrants, who were as detested and persecuted in the 19th century as Hispanics are today in this country. Varela built the first Catholic schools for them (open to both sexes, for the first time); the first mutual aid society; the first orphanages; and the first parish to cater to their spiritual and material needs, in the notorious Five Corners section were most of them lived. The Irish clamored for Varela to be their bishop, but Spain vetoed his selection because Varela continued to agitate for Cuba's independence from New York, creating, through his patriotic writings, a distinctive Cuban consciousness and nationality. Martí himself journeyed to Varela's grave, then in St. Augustine, FL, to pay homage to "the man who taught us to think" and consecrate his work of liberation to him.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Spanish Governor in Havana, Francisco Vives, decided to apply Varela’s death sentence in New York, dispatching one of his thugs, el tuerto (one-eyed) Morejón of the Havana police to assassinate him. By that time Varela had built a loyal following among his Irish parishioners, who were no friends of colonialists, and they foiled the plot by warning Varela and intimidating the would-be assassin. A one-eyed Spanish-speaking stranger wandering around an Irish neighborhood in lower Manhattan would have been noticed. In any case, Morejón returned to Havana, presumably without earning the 30,00o pesos Vives had offered him.
- Varela’s association with Friends of Ireland in 1843 in support of publication of Thomas Mooney's lectures on Irish history
Varela talks about his support of Irish immigrants in 1800’s New York in “Choosing Peace”:
- “I work hard to help Irish families build schools for their children, and I tend cholera patients, and I defend Irish American boys and girls against insults from mobs who hate them just because their parents are immigrants.”
Essay by Cardinal Egan
Two observations from Hernán Guaracao, a major on line publisher for the Latino community in Philadelphia, originally from Colombia. He brings Varela into the present.
But his greatest achievement in life was not this advocacy for the independence of his homeland, written out in that journalistic enterprise he launched in Old City Philadelphia, but what he did in the following 30 years in New York City, where he moved to lead a life of charity in defense of the poorest of the poor, the undereducated immigrants coming to America in the first half of the 19th century, mostly from an island called Ireland.
“No single Latino left a greater imprint on 19th century American culture than Varela,” writes former Philadelphia Daily News writer and New York Daily News columnist, Juan Gonzalez in his book “Harvest of Empire.”
Does anybody remember the “Kensington Riots,” when the Catholic Irish confronted the backlash of resistance to their presence they found in Philadelphia in the 19th Century, either because they were poor, or they were undereducated, or they were simply “different”, on top of being catholic, exactly like a good number of Latinos are today?
The life of Father Felix Varela y Morales, when properly publicized and well understood, can be a major point of reference to the current dilemmas of immigration into the United States.
And it can be a call, from the shrine of the memory of a man one step away from being declared a saint by the Catholic church, for the moral responsibility many leaders with power and influence, some of Irish descent, must feel today.
In the profound immigration crisis of today, Varela life’s example can be just an inspiration for action in view of the millions that have come and are now trapped by obsolete laws that keep many on the run, or stigmatized because of the negative images propagated by a society of immigrants that have been harsh with their own kind.
- Additional URLs for Cuban, Irish and Irish American links https://tinyurl.com/IrishCubalinks
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