Statue of Father Félix Varela at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Photo by Mel Longo.
Like many Cuban exiles living in Northeast Florida, I sometimes find connections to fellow Cubans. Because we recognize a shared history, we are usually happy to meet and talk with one another. Cuban or not, priest and writer Father Félix Varela is a part of everyone’s shared history in this part of the state. Certainly, he was Cuba’s most important intellectual. In both the U.S. and Cuba, he was a great social reformer and generous holy man.
Félix Varela was born in 1788 to a Cuban mother and Spanish father. Cuba was under Spanish colonial rule at that time, and the military outpost of San Agustìn was a few years into its Second Spanish period (1784-1821). Varela was an orphan by the age of six, so he went to San Agustìn to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather Bartolome Morales was the commander at the Castillo de San Marcos.
Photo by Mel Longo.
Tutored by Father Miguel O’Reilly in Latin, music and theology, Varela returned to Cuba at 14, ready for studies at the San Carlos Seminary in Havana. He was ordained a priest in 1811, and then took a seminary faculty position for a decade. During that time, he wrote textbooks in chemistry, math, physics, law, scientific thinking and philosophy. The textbooks were used in various countries in the Americas and in Europe. What’s more, they were in use at the University of Havana until 1964. In addition, Varela is considered a major figure in the Latin American literary movement and the first Cuban American writer. The man was a genius! But St. Johns County, where he lived as a youngster and returned to die, can’t be bothered to spell his last name correctly on 25 street signs – Varella Avenue should be Varela Avenue.
In 1821, Father Félix Varela was elected as a colonial representative to the Spanish parliament, an unusual role for a priest. There, he advocated for Cuba’s self-rule, an end to slavery and women’s education. He also wanted Spanish to be used as the language of instruction instead of Latin. In 1823, after the abolishment of the Spanish parliament, the monarchy accused him of treason as a result of his beliefs.
The Church of the Transfiguration, formerly the Church of the Immigrant, one of the New York churches founded by Varela. Photo by Kira Delaney.
That’s when Varela, like so many Cubans then and now, became a political exile. He went to New York City, eventually becoming vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York. For close to 30 years, he served poor Irish immigrants, built schools, and founded churches. From New York, he advocated for Cuba’s independence from Spain. He founded the first Spanish language newspaper in the U.S., the Habanero. He defended the poor, the sick, immigrants and Catholics.
Poor health spurred Varela’s return to St. Augustine in 1847. Five years later, Varela died a poor man in a room behind the parochial school, once on the east side of the Cathedral Basilica. Today, that place is marked by a bronze statue of the man, alongside a plaque.
He was buried twice in the Tolomato Cemetery. After his initial burial, he was moved in 1855 to a chapel built in his honor largely with Cuban funds. In 1912, a decade after Cuba won its independence from Spain, Varela’s remains were returned to Havana.
Felix Varela mortuary chapel, Varela’s former resting place. Photo by Bill Delaney.
Varela was a Cuban, a Cuban American perhaps, and an exile who loved both countries. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Padre Felix Varela on September 15, 1997. Local photographer Ken Barrett took the photograph of his visage on the stamp from an original etching brought from a Flagler College historian from Cuba. The U.S. Postal Service receives 50,000 requests for commemorative stamps annually. Varela was chosen because of his work as a social reformer and for being a man of peace, generosity, and love.
In 2012, Pope Benedict declared Varela a venerable of the Church, a stage before beatification, the step before canonization as a saint. Of course, people are way ahead of the Church – Cubans and many Americans already call him one.
One last marker: Varella Avenue in St. Johns County is home to St. Augustine High School. Thousands of students have graduated from there, and thousands are taught his name with a misspelling. In 1997, local historian David Nolan wrote a letter to the editor of The St. Augustine Record about this very issue. “How ironic that at a time when so many lament our students’ poor spelling, we set this bad example for them right at the schoolhouse door,” he wrote.
Photo by Mel Longo.
In response to my letter to the editor about the misspelling in 2015, The St. Augustine Record responded with an editorial. It included remarks from Charles Tingley, the Historical Society’s senior research librarian. Tingley said he was 99 percent certain the modern spelling was an error – more than likely “mis-penned on an old county plat map.” St. Johns County officials explained the procedure for having the county correct the 25 misspelled signs on Varella Avenue to me: all property owners on the avenue would have to be contacted, and 51% would have to agree to the change. After this effort, I could present results to the county commissioners. They would vote on the change.
At the time, two Flagler College students agreed to help knock on doors. I could recruit cuatro gatos – among them my husband and sister. Then, the 450th celebration of the founding of St. Augustine was months away, and the Catholic Church was busy preparing for the festivities.Bishop Felipe Estevez, Cuban, author of a dissertation on Father Felix Varela, gave me a commendation. I considered the factors involved regarding my moving forward with the campaign and dropped the matter.
Shortly thereafter, I went to the courtyard east of the Cathedral to visit Father Varela. I turned to read the bronze plaque next to his statue. Varela died on February 25. I was taken aback by a new connection to this Cuban exile from another era. On February 25, 2015, The St. Augustine Record had published my letter in defense of the proper spelling of this fellow Cuban’s name.
Guest article by Marisella Veiga. Contact Marisella at firstname.lastname@example.org