Varela y Morales, Félix (1788–1853)

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Varela y Morales, Félix (1788–1853)

Félix Varela y Morales (b. 20 November 1788; d. 25 February 1853), Cuban priest, thinker, and patriot. Orphaned at an early age, Varela was still a child when he moved to Saint Augustine, Florida. (The area had been returned to Spain by Britain in 1783 under the Treaty of Paris.) There he was consigned to the care of his maternal grandfather, the commander of the city's Spanish garrison. He became the pupil of Fr. Michael O'Reilly, then the vicar of East Florida, who eventually became his role model. It was Fr. O'Reilly who influenced his decision to enter the priesthood rather than become a soldier, as his family traditions called for. "I wish to be a soldier of Jesus Christ," Varela said at the time. "I do not wish to kill men, but to save their souls."

Varela began attending the San Carlos Seminary in Havana in 1803 and was ordained in 1811. By that time he had already started to teach philosophy at the seminary, which in those days was also open to lay students. He thus became the mentor of many of the most distinguished Cuban intellectuals of the period; later they recognized their debt to him, stating that "he was who first taught us to think."

As an opponent of decadent scholasticism and one of the first who wrote philosophical textbooks in Spanish rather than Latin, Varela enjoyed the support of the bishop of Havana, José Díaz de Espada y Landa. The bishop asked him to teach a new course at the seminary on the constitution framed by the Spanish Cortes in 1812. Such was the reputation of his lectures that he was elected to represent Cuba in the Cortes in 1821. While serving, Varela made several significant contributions, advocating a more benign rule over the colonies and submitting a proposal for the abolition of slavery within fifteen years. Unfortunately, the restoration of Spanish absolutism in 1823 made it impossible for the Cortes to discuss these proposals. Forced into exile by this turn of events, he shortly arrived in the United States.

Varela settled in New York, where he soon stood out as a man of irreproachable life, a learned and devoted parish priest, an able administrator, and a wise educator and director of souls. Above all, he was known for his work with the sick and the poor especially during the great cholera epidemic of 1832, when his charity sometimes reached heroic dimensions. As one contemporary put it, his name was "one of benediction in the city of New York." For this reason Varela was admired and respected by everyone. First in 1829, on a temporary basis, and then without interruption from 1837 onward, he held the office of vicar general for New York, a post second in importance only to that of bishop. He attended several of the Baltimore Councils as an advisor to American bishops. Varela also played a leading role as a public defender of the Catholic faith in the violent Catholic-Protestant clashes of the period.

Varela's achievements as a priest are as much a part of U.S. ecclesiastical history as they are part of Cuba's history. But although he never made any effort to return to his native land, he always regarded it as his country. Cubans, for their part, rightly regard him as the ideological father of their nationality. When Varela went to Spain as a member of the Cortes, he described himself as "a son of liberty, an American soul." At the time, however, he would have been satisfied with some form of colonial self-government for Cuba. But he soon discovered that most Spanish deputies, including many who enjoyed the reptuation of being very liberal, distrusted Spanish Americans and had no faith in their ability to govern themselves. It was then, and most especially after King Ferdinand VII dissolved the Cortes, that he gave up the hope of achieving autonomy for Cuba within the framework of the Spanish monarchy and became the great prophet of Cuban independence.

Varela published his pro-independence articles in the newspaper El Habanero, which he founded in the United States. At the time, there were many Cubans who were in favor of Spanish rule, and some of them advocated the annexation of the island to Colombia or Mexico, just as others would support annexation to the United States a few years later. Varela argued against all of these paths. He morally justified rebellion against the oppressive colonial government, saying that it was "inspired by nature and upheld by the sacred laws of self-preservation." As for the idea of Cuba becoming the province of a neighboring state, he wrote: "I am the first to oppose the union of the island to any government. I should wish to see her as much of a political island as she is such in geographical terms."

Ill health eventually led Varela to retire to Saint Augustine, where he died. As a priest, Varela was well ahead of his time; his liberal norms and principles were more in consonance with the orientation of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) than with some nineteenth-century Catholic doctrines. As a thinker, he infused new life into philosophical studies in Cuba. As a patriot, he can be justly regarded as the founding father of Cuban nationalism.

See alsoHispanics in the United States; Nationalism.


José I. Lasaga, Cuban Lives: Pages from Cuban History, translated by Nelson Durán, vol. 1 (1984), pp. 157-180.

Joseph and Helen M. Mc Cadden, Félix Varela: Torch Bearer from Cuba, 2nd ed. (1984).

Additional Bibliography

Carnes, Mark C. Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Navia, Juan M. An Apostle for the Immigrants: The Exile Years of Father Felix Varela y Morales, 1823–1853. Salisbury, MD: Factor Press, 2002.

                                    JosÉ M. HernÁndez