By Father Christopher Heanue
Immigrants have played a critical part in the life of New York and the United States at large since the founding of the “land of the free.” Though the nationalities and languages of immigrants shift over time, the challenges of navigating life in a new country and a new culture remain remarkably similar. The Catholic Church has always worked hard to help new arrivals face these challenges, both materially and spiritually.
Father Félix Varela (1788-1853) answered the call during his priesthood to serve recently arrived Irish, Italian, and German immigrants in New York. In the neighborhood of the city then called “Five Points,” he especially served thousands of Irish immigrants escaping poverty, hunger, and death in their homeland.
Born in Havana, Father Varela was ordained a priest at the age of 23. He was highly regarded for his brilliant philosophical mind, his cultural interests, and his role in the political sphere in Cuba and Spain. In 1821, Father Varela represented Cuba in the Spanish Parliament.
He signed a document critical of the Spanish King Ferdinand VII. The monarch declared all 66 signers of the document enemies of the state. As a result, Father Varela fled Spain on a journey that would bring him to the United States. He and two companions arrived in New York harbor onboard the Draper on Dec. 15, 1823.
At that time, there were only two parishes in New York: St. Peter’s on Barclay Street and the Cathedral of St. Patrick (now Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral). Father John Power, the vicar general for the diocese, asked Father Varela to help organize a new community of immigrants. Two years later, Father Varela raised $19,000 to buy the property of Christ Church. By 1833, that building was becoming unsafe to use.
This led Father Varela to purchase land on James Street to construct a new church dedicated to St. James. Some parishioners complained that James Street was too far from their former Christ Church. In response, Father Varela purchased a former Presbyterian church on Chambers Street. It was renamed the Church of the Transfiguration.
Bishop John Dubois eventually appointed Father Varela to be a vicar general alongside Father Power, so the two would serve together in this important role.
As noted in Joseph and Helen McCadden’s Félix Varela: Torch Bearer from Cuba, “The two young priests had much in common. Both men were completely devoted to their calling. Both were scholarly and well trained in theology. Each had fled a beloved homeland that was victimized by political tyranny: Power was a pioneer alumnus of Maynooth, the first Catholic seminary in modern Ireland, tolerated by the British to keep the local papist clergy from the revolutionary contamination of continental universities.”
Father Varela’s assignments, academic achievements, and writings meant little to him compared to his pastoral duties. He was completely devoted to his priestly work. He labored under the motto: “salus animarum suprema lex” (“the salvation of souls is the supreme law”).
Father Varela was a true pastor to all he served, especially the thousands of Irish immigrants who found his church a place of refuge. He defended them from “nativists” who opposed and mistreated immigrants.
Speaking about his support for Irish refugees, he once said, “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.”
Father Varela fought for better schooling for children of immigrants. In order to supplement the Sunday school instructions, he collaborated with the Children’s Catholic magazine. In the summer of 1838, this publication “called attention to the slanders against Catholics, and against Irish Catholics in particular, in texts and library books supplied by the New York Public School Society.
“This disclosure prompted Catholic school trustees, early in 1840, to demand public aid for their own institutions, and led to the famous School Crisis of 1840-42 and, eventually, to the founding of the secular public school system of New York City.”
Father Varela was famous for creating the New York City Catholic Temperance Association to combat uncontrolled drinking and the great misery that accompanied it. He embarked on this work almost a decade before Ireland’s Father Theobald Mathew began to encourage “the pledge” to Americans.
Father Varela believed, as Juan Navia writes in “An Apostle for the Immigrants,” that “as human beings created in the image of God, we have the capacity to reason and make life decisions that are in keeping with our human dignity and which leads to happiness in this world and salvation in the other.”
Various biographies catalog stories of Father Varela’s selfless generosity. He would give to those in need any valuable object he had: his watch, silver spoons, the dishes from his table, linens, and blankets, even his own garments!
With the influx of immigrants to our country and state, Father Varela’s example is one that we need to imitate now more than ever. Our recently arrived brothers and sisters need an advocate for them as the Irish, German, and Italian immigrants needed in the past. They need well-trained and well-versed individuals who can rebut contemporary nativist arguments.
The vulnerable in our society need a modern-day Father Varela to help them to better their lives, as did with his temperance movement. May he inspire the hearts of many to be generous with their time, talent, and treasure, to heed the Gospel message, and to see Christ in their neighbor.
Father Christopher Heanue is the rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph-St. Teresa of Avila in Prospect Heights and Coordinator of the Ministry to the Irish in the Diocese of Brooklyn.