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Meet the Cuban-American priest who fought for immigrant rights

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During his life, Ven. Félix Varela defended those on the margins of society.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1788, Félix Varela y Morales spent his childhood in St. Augustine, Florida. His mother died when he was young, and Varela’s grandfather was a military commander stationed there in Spanish Florida.

Varela’s grandfather wanted him to have a successful military career, but Varela felt called to the priesthood. He returned to Cuba and began his studies at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana.

After ordination Varela joined the seminary faculty and became a professor, teaching Philosophy, Chemistry, Physics, Theology and Music. He taught many influential Cubans during his time at the seminary.

After teaching at the seminary for several years he was chosen to represent Cuba in the General Courts in Spain. During his time there he was active in a Foreign Affairs committee and introduced projects to give independence to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and other territories under the Spanish crown.

Varela also advocated for the abolition of slavery, writing, “Constitutional Liberty and equality are synonyms and these words repel slavery and Inequality of rights.”

After the French invasion of Spain in 1823 his political views were under scrutiny and the new government sentenced him to death. He fled the country and eventually settled in New York City.

While there Varela was appointed pastor of an Irish parish in the city. Varela continued his political activism by publishing articles about human rights, alcoholism and religious tolerance. He also defended the rights of immigrants and supported those who were struggling to make it in their new country.

After several years Varela was chosen as the Vicar General of the Diocese of New York. He continued to work for immigrants and was a friend of the Irish. During this time Varela was also chosen as a theological advisor to the Baltimore Catechism.

Due to health issues, Varela was forced to retire, returning to St. Augustine, Florida, where he died five years after arriving.

His life was an inspiration to many and after his death the cause for his canonization was opened. Then in 2012 the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes approved a decree on the heroic virtues of Varela, who shortly after was declared “venerable.”

Varela is seen by many as a bridge between the United States and Cuba, as Brother Rodolfo Meoli said to CNA, “From the spiritual point of view, he is on both sides.”

Check out our series on the Saints of the United States.

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