Catholics Celebrate 19th-Century Pastor of Tolerance
By MIRTA OJITO
NEW YORK—Inside a crowded church, with the sounds and smells of Chinatown
edging their way to the altar, Chinese and
Cuban Catholics on Thursday honored a 19th-century Cuban immigrant who spent half his life defending Irish immigrants in
His name was Felix Varela and he was a priest, philosopher and educator
who, fleeing a death sentence of the Spanish Crown,
arrived in New York in 1823 and left, shortly before he died, 30 years later.
Varela founded two churches and two schools in New York City, opened
orphanages and tended to the sick. He published a
Spanish-language newspaper, which he used to advocate the independence of Cuba, the abolition of slavery and the need for
But, above all, he fought for the rights of immigrants, who were, at
the time, overwhelmingly Irish and among the first often
unwanted newcomers to America. Eventually, he was named vicar general of the New York Diocese.
At the ceremony Thursday at the Church of the Transfiguration, one of
the churches Varela founded, he was remembered by
about 300 Catholics, while the postal service unveiled a 32-cent stamp in his honor.
Dr. Tirso del Junco, the chairman of the board of governors of the postal
service, said the stamp was first proposed about 10
years ago. But, he said, it had to compete against the 50,000 proposals the board receives every year.
Religious leaders, including Cardinal John O'Connor, used the opportunity
to highlight Varela's work with immigrants,
comparing his times to the current anti-immigration climate.
"I couldn't stand before you in honor of Father Varela today without
a word for those other immigrants," O'Connor said.. "In
my judgment, it is utterly preposterous that we seem to have become a land hostile to immigrants."
Most members of the audience, many of them immigrants with harrowing
stories of exile and poverty, nodded at the Cardinal's
words. But it was the unspoken symbolisms of the day that captured the imagination of the audience.
Here was a long-dead priest, whose name is spoken by Cubans everywhere
in the same reverential tones reserved in the
United States for Thomas Jefferson, being celebrated by Chinese Catholics, who knew him, not as a Cuban patriot, but as the
founder of their church and the parochial school their children now attend.
Chinese men and women, most of them unable to communicate in English
or Spanish, stood in line at a cart parked outside the
church to buy the stamp. More than 12,000 stamps were sold in about three hours.
"My children wanted it," said Yin Yurn, 42, a mother of two. "It's important
for them to have the stamp of the man who
founded their school."
Cubans in the audience, clearly pleased with the acceptance of their
home-grown hero in Chinatown, were turning to each
other and asking the same question: What would Father Varela say if he could see his church now?
Msgr. Otto Garcia, the Cuban-born chancellor of the Diocese of Brooklyn,
had an answer: "He would have opened up his
arms like this," he said, and he made a sweeping gesture from the altar.