Father Félix Varela was the founding pastor of The Church of the Transfiguration and apostle to American immigrants.
Félix Varela was born on November 20, 1788 in Cuba, then part of New Spain. He studied at the San Carlos Seminary. A highly intelligent student, Varela was named Professor of Philosophy at the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio of Havana in 1811. In the same year he became a priest.
In Cuba, Father Varela was the leading educator, philosopher and patriot of his time. He taught philosophy, chemistry, physics, theology and music to many future Cuban leaders. He advocated giving women the same education that men received.
In 1821, Father Varela was elected to represent Cuba in the Spanish legislature. Varela recommended the Spanish colonies in Latin America be considered independent from Spain. He also asked for Cuban self-rule and an end to slavery. Two years later, considered an enemy of the autocratic government of Ferdinand VII, he was condemned to death by the Spanish Crown. Before he could be arrested, he escaped and made his way to New York, where he arrived in December 1823.
Shortly after working as an assistant to Pastor John Powers, Vicar General of the Diocese of New York, Father Varela was asked to form a “basement congregation” in lower Manhattan. This was in response to a growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants in the community. Over the next 25 years, the basement congregation grew to become the church of immigrants — The Church of the Transfiguration.
In 1837, Varela was named Vicar General of the Diocese of New York. He served as a theological consultant to the committee of American Bishops that drew up the famous Baltimore Catechism, a standard teaching tool for Catholic children in the nation until the mid-20th century.
Father Félix Varela died on February 25, 1853 in St. Augustine, Florida. His remains were moved to Havana in 1912 and placed in Aula Magna of Havana University. In 1988, on the bicentennial of his birth, the U.S. postal service issued a $0.32 stamp in his name.
On Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared Father Varela “Venerable”, which means he lived a virtuous life within the Catholic faith to a heroic degree, and as such, is worthy of praise. Father Varela is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint.