As we already know from previous blogs on the search for the first Cuban New Yorker, Fr. Félix Varela was not chronologically the first. But he was almost the first one (only missed it by months), and there are a lot of things about him that make us want to think that he was the first. First of all, unlike many Cuban New Yorkers, he was not a slave owner; in fact, he opposed slavery, even when most of his students (including Cristóbal Mádan) were from slaveholding families. Varela was also an early and active proponent of Cuban sovereignty (as Martí wrote much later “he taught us how to think”). But most importantly, he is the first Cuban New Yorker to have had a significant and demonstrable effect on the city through his selfless pastoral work among Irish immigrants and the many ways in which he strengthened, institutionally, the New York Catholic diocese at an especially difficult time in its history.
Varela was also, like the poet José María Heredia, an early model of the “reluctant migrant,” the émigré who never intended to spend most of his life outside his native country, but ended up doing so, even dying without ever returning. That’s a story that has been repeated with an abject monotony among Cubans since Varela’s time. When he arrived at a South Street pier aboard the Draper, on December 15, 1823, he thought he was just passing through on his way to Cuba. He had been in Madrid as part of a delegation before the Spanish parliament seeking relaxation of the strict controls under which Spain governed its colony. But when Fernando VII was restored to the throne he unleashed a wave of persecution against liberal reformers. Varela barely escaped to Gibraltar, where he boarded the first ship out: the Draper bound for New York.
No doubt he thought when he arrived that his stay in the cold city (during December and January) would be temporary (he did not initially seek an appointment with the Diocese), but he underestimated the Spanish Crown’s vindictiveness. The priest was sentenced to death in absentia. There was no return to Cuba, and Varela would stay in his new accidental city for the next twenty-seven years. He would finally leave it already in ill health, but not for Cuba, but St. Augustine, where he died in 1853, a month after José Martí was born in Havana.
Varela’s years in New York have been fairly well documented, although many gaps still exist, perhaps because there has not been enough digging in the local archives to flesh out many aspects of his life in the city. There are several biographies of him, but most are derivatives of the first one (still the best), José Ignacio Rodríguez’s Vida del presbítero Don Félix Varela, originally published in 1878 in New York (available in Google Books). I have the 1944 second edition published in Havana. Rodríguez, a Cuban New Yorker who arrived in 1869 wrote the biography from Varela’s writings and from interviews with those who knew Varela and were still around (Mádan, for example).
It was probably Mádan who was the source of a cloak-and-dagger story, perhaps a legend, about Varela in New York, one that showed how impossible was Varela’s return to the island. 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.
Despite offers to relocate to warmer and more hospitable environments, such as Mexico, Varela decided to stay in New York and become another parish priest in
a diocese that was growing rapidly due largely to the Irish influx. As with many other Cubans who arrived later in New York, he deemed it the closest place to Cuba due to the busy ship traffic with Cuban ports, especially Havana. But the climate and the language, which he found difficult to learn, tormented him: “The whistling sound of English,” he wrote, “rings in my ears like impertinent flies, making it hard to write comfortably in Spanish.”
But he eventually mastered English, transforming his newly found voice and pen into vibrant defenders of the rights of Catholics in a hostile environment where nativists and anti-Papists threatened, even physically, the survival of Catholicism in the city. Varela witnessed an incident in which some 500 parishioners of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (still there, on Mott and Prince Streets) surrounded the Church in anticipation of an attack by a mob intent on burning the building. Bloodshed was narrowly averted when the municipal authorities intervened. Varela wrote that religious tolerance exists only legally in the U.S., otherwise “it is an abominable hypocrisy to pretend to have tolerance.”
Varela was not intimidated by the violence against Catholics in New York. Whatever New York’s anti-Catholics could muster against him paled in comparison to what he had already experienced: narrowly escaping Fernando’s troops in Spain and an assassin in New York, not to mention the executioner that awaited him in Havana. “I am perfectly cured of the malady of fright,” he wrote.
Varela’s courageous defense of the Church rapidly made him the intellectual leader in the New York diocese and he became a favorite of the new Bishop, the French-born Jean DuBois, who appointed Varela as Vicar General of the Diocese. But Varela’s most lasting contribution to New York Catholicism was the founding of two downtown parishes, greatly expanding the number of parishes to accommodate the growing influx of Irish immigrants.
The two parishes were actually the successors of the original one that Varela founded in 1827, Christ Church, in Ann Street. When Christ Church burned down in 1835, the Diocese decided to replace it with an imposing Romanesque church built on land it acquired on James Street, between Madison and Chatham Streets, in the vicinity of the Five Points area. It was officially named Christ Church, but became known as St. James. Both the building and the parish survive to this day, and a plaque in front of the church recognizes Varela as the founder of the parish.
But the parishioners of the old Christ Church considered the new location of their parish to be too far north and east. Although he was to be transferred to St. James once it was built, Varela wanted to remain with his congregation. So with the financial backing of one of his staunchest supporters, the Swiss restaurateur Giovanni Delmonico (yes, that Delmonico), Varela bought the old Dutch Reform Presbyterian Church building on Chambers Street, just east of Broadway, and established the Church of the Transfiguration of our Lord, which opened on March 31, 1836, months before St. James was completed. Varela installed himself as the pastor of Transfiguration Church and moved into the Church’s residence and rectory, a modest house he purchased just around the corner from the Church, at 23 Reade Street, where he would live for the rest of his years in New York.
The Chambers Street Transfiguration Church and the residence/rectory are, of course, no longer standing. In May 1853, Transfiguration Parish moved from Chambers Street into yet another former Protestant church building, on Mott
Transfiguration on Mott Street has become the site most associated with Varela’s presence in New York. In fact, it was there in 1997 where the U.S. Postal Service chose to launch the postage stamp bearing Varela’s image. It was the parish that Varela founded and served for the longest time. Yet, it is almost certain that Varela never celebrated a single Mass there: the parish moved there three months after he died, and three years after he moved permanently to St. Augustine.