Diocese of Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Octavio Cisneros leads sainthood cause for Church’s ‘renaissance man’
RICHMOND HILL — There are two narratives about Father Félix Varela (1788-1853), and both are true.
In his native Cuba, he is Varela the philosopher, teacher, patriot, and then a politician marked for death by the Spanish crown because he supported independence for colonial Latin America.
But in New York City, he became a parish priest who personified God’s love and care in the raucous Five Points neighborhood. Here, marginalized Irish immigrants suffered disease and endured squalor, overcrowding, and hostility toward their Catholic faith. Still, they were comforted and sustained by the work of this Cuban exile.
Pope Benedict XVI named him “venerable” in 2012. Now the next step is beatification, pending miracles. The 200th anniversary of Father Varela’s arrival in Manhattan is celebrated this year, and his cause for sainthood is gathering momentum.
Immersed in promoting Father Varela is the vice-postulator for the cause, retired Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn. On Feb. 24, he will co-host a gala dinner with the Félix Varela Foundation at the Union League Club in Manhattan. Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Seán O’Malley of Boston are slated to attend.
“All we need now is a miracle,” Bishop Cisneros said. “That’s why we keep promoting the figure of Varela. And with the dinner, it’s not just to gather funds for the cause of canonization. It’s to let people know about him, especially the Irish.
“If the Irish keep praying to Varela, I know that something will happen.”
A Renaissance Man
Félix Varela y Morales was born into a military family in Havana, Cuba, which was then a colony of Spain.
But by age 3, both his parents had died, so he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Lt. Col. Bartolomé Félix Morales y Ramírez, commander of the colonial garrison at St. Augustine, Florida. There, Irish priests schooled the boy in Latin and Scripture.
Spain’s colonies depended on slave labor, and in Florida, the atrocities were ever-present. At age 14, Varela protested his grandfather’s wish for him to enter a military academy in Spain. Instead, he set his eyes on the priesthood to serve the marginalized.
Varela entered the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana and was ordained a priest in 1811. He also attended the University of Havana, where he gathered immense knowledge in mathematics, philosophy, and chemistry.
Father Varela became a professor and author of textbooks. He also researched constitutional democracy and how it might work in Latin America.
“He truly was a renaissance man,” Bishop Cisneros said.
By 1821, his political writings and oratory resulted in his appointment to represent Cuba on the governmental body, “Cortes Generales,” in Spain. While there, he advocated for democracy and independence for Latin America. He also penned an important anti-slavery essay.
“The emphasis in Cuba was not on his apostolic ministry,” Bishop Cisneros said. “In my grammar school, I heard of Félix Varela, of course. But there was never really an emphasis on the full person of Varela.
“Always they had him as Varela the philosopher, a teacher, a patriot, and then a politician.”
But in 19th century Spain, he would become known as a troublemaker.
King Ferdinand VII had been in and out of power, having been overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte of France, but he was allowed to return in 1823. The king subsequently cracked down on pro-democracy speakers like Father Varela.
The priest was marked for death, but he escaped, landing in New York City. He never returned to Cuba.
“He became persona non grata,” Bishop Cisneros said. “He could not return to Cuba because that was part of Spain. The closest you could get to Cuba was the United States.”
Upon landing in New York City, Father Varela beheld the violence, lack of sanitation, and overcrowding of immigrants from all over the world, especially the Irish. Their numbers would accelerate in the coming years during the Great Famine in Ireland.
At that time, there were only two Catholic structures in Manhattan — St. Peter’s Church, also the oldest parish in New York state, and the old Cathedral of St. Patrick.
“There were very few priests in New York — just a handful,” he said. “But here you had Varela, who was very well educated. He had a doctorate degree. He was a philosopher. He got busy.”
Father Varela created three publications, including “El Habanero,” the first Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S. He wrote editorials calling for religious tolerance and human rights.
In 1825, Father Varela joined the staff of St. Peter’s Parish as an assistant pastor, but as more Irish Catholics arrived, he established two new churches. St. James Parish on James Street was established in 1833.
Three years later, he purchased a Presbyterian church on Chambers Street that became the Church of the Transfiguration. That parish relocated to Mott Street in present-day Chinatown, where it has the distinction of being the mother church of the Chinese-Catholic community of New York.
Father Varela’s sense of pastoral responsibility moved him to the unheard-of task of spending lengthy stretches in hospitals ministering to cholera patients. He also liquidated his personal inheritances from Cuba to help the poor.
In poor health, he returned to St. Augustine to convalesce in 1850 but died three years later.
To Elevate the People
Bishop Cisneros said he knew nothing of Father Varela’s New York ministry until after he made his own journey to the United States.
He arrived in 1961 during Operation Peter Pan, a Catholic humanitarian effort that brought 14,000 unaccompanied children to the U.S. from Cuba, which had fallen under the umbrella of communism. A decade later, he was ordained a priest.
Upon arriving in New York, another Cuban priest, Msgr. Raul del Valle, told Bishop Cisneros about Father Varela “the priest.”
He came to share Msgr. del Valle’s appreciation for Father Varela. All three were priests who left Cuba against their wishes but found new purposes in New York.
“He founded an orphans’ school so that the mothers could work,” Bishop Cisneros said of Father Varela. “He tried to help women by giving them work, giving them sewing. He tried to elevate the people so that they would not go into crime or prostitution.
“He’s an example of dedication to the people, to the immigrants. And that’s exactly what has been asked of me. So he’s truly the example for me as a Cuban priest in New York.”
He also is an example to popes.
In January, Pope Francis wrote to the people of Cuba and encouraged them as they’ve faced shortages of food and medicine in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These shortages have prompted the largest anti-government protests in decades. But Pope Francis reminded Cubans of Father Varela’s message of hope.
Quoting the priest, the pope wrote, “Shortly after a tree takes root, it will extend its branches, and virtue will rest in its shade.”