Statue of Fr. Felix Varela – Church of the Transfiguration

This statue is on display in the courtyard of the Church of the Transfiguration in Chinatown, NYC. The church was originally built by Lutherans in 1801. That Lutheran congregation, whose history goes back to 1749, was riven by disputes over doctrine and language, and the building was sold to Episcopalians in 1810.  As the neighborhood changed, most of the church members moved uptown and the Episcopalians in turn sold it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York in 1853. It has historically been referred to as the “Church of the Immigrants” because of the successive waves of immigrants who have settled in this neighborhood, including during the infamous era when it was known as Five Points. Today it serves the growing Chinese Catholic community in the city, with Masses offered in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

Father Varela was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1788. I cannot even fairly summarize all that he did, but he was active first in Cuba, then in the United States, mostly in New York and later in Florida. He taught Philosophy, Physics and Chemistry, published several newspapers in both Spanish and English, he advocated for Cuban independence and Latin American independence in general, and advocated for the abolition of slavery. In New York, he had a leading role in fashioning the Church’s response to an extremely troubled Irish immigrant community. Although neither this article, nor this one, mentions Fr. Varela by name, they detail how the Church helped change the culture of New York’s Irish immigrant community. Within a generation Irish men went from being known for being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct (the term “paddy wagon” began in this era) to being the cops who kept order, and Irish women went from being known for promiscuity and prostitution to being caricatured for being too prudish. The Church realized that although they were poor and faced discrimination, their bad behavior was their fault, and under their own control. The Church literally taught them a religion that was forbidden to them by the English rulers back home. In doing so they changed Irish culture and improved the people’s lives.

Today, Fr. Varela is on the path to possible canonization. Whether or not that ever happens, his was an amazing life of service.



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