Julia Greeley (c. 1840–1918) was born into slavery in Missouri. Around 1880 she moved to Denver and became a Catholic. Despite being poor herself, Greeley spent the rest of her life doing good deeds for the impoverished. In 2016 the Catholic Church opened the Cause for Sainthood to determine whether she may someday be canonized.
Julia Greeley did not know her age or the full names of her parents. Estimates of the year of her birth range from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. What is known is that she was from Hannibal, Missouri, and that she was born into slavery. As a child, she was blinded in one eye by a slave master’s whip. She was free by 1865, when Missouri, which had not been subject to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, passed an Emancipation Proclamation of its own.
By about 1871, Greeley was living in St. Louis, Missouri, and was employed by Dr. Gervais Paul Robinson and his wife, Lina Pratte Robinson. While working for the Robinsons, she met Lina’s sister, Julia Pratte Dickerson. A widow with four children, Julia Dickerson was courted by William Gilpin, former first territorial governor of Colorado. The two wed in 1874 and moved to Denver.
In the late 1870s, Julia Greeley left her position with the Robinson family in St. Louis. She asked Dr. Robinson to write a letter for her to the Gilpins, asking for employment. According to the 1880 census, Julia Greeley was in Denver working for the Gilpin family. But marital relations between the Gilpins were strained, and by 1883 Julia’s service with them ended. She worked in both New Mexico and Wyoming during the next four years, but returned to Denver in 1887 to testify in the Gilpins’s bitter divorce trial. For the remainder of her life, Julia cooked, cleaned, and did odd jobs in the Denver area, all the while looking out for the city’s poor residents.
A devout Catholic, Julia Pratte Gilpin introduced Julia Greeley to the Catholic Church. Greeley was baptized on June 26, 1880, at Sacred Heart Church on Larimer Street. In Catholic theology, the Sacred Heart represents Christ himself, and it was through the image of the Sacred Heart that Greeley dedicated her life to serving Christ .
Her devotion to her Catholic faith took many forms. She fasted each day until noon, telling the priests “My communion is my breakfast.” Each month, she walked to all the fire stations in the city to hand out Catholic leaflets. She passed out the leaflets to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, saying, “They are all God’s children.” Denver Fire Station no. 1, at 1326 Tremont, was one of the stations Julia visited each month.
Pulling a little red wagon, Julia would also deliver various goods to homes of the poor. She had almost no money herself, but she was exceptionally good at finding things that others needed. Julia did not limit herself to just the necessities of food, fuel, and clothing; one night, she was seen carrying a mattress on her back to deliver to a family. Another night, it was a baby carriage. And on another, it was a broken doll that she was taking home to fix for a child. Greeley asked girls in one part of the city to not wear their pretty clothes for too long, and to give them to her before the dresses were worn out. Then, she would deliver the dresses to poor girls in another part of the city so they could attend dances.
Despite finding lovely dresses for others, Greeley herself was known for the old, tattered dress she nearly always wore, and a wide-brimmed black hat. She was a small woman, around five feet tall. The right eye that had been blinded continually wept, and she always carried a cloth to wipe her face.
Greeley also loved to sing, and church music was a vital part of her life. In the late 1890s, she was working at Fort Logan as a cook. She was one of a small group who regularly attended services in a basement chapel. She also purchased an organ for the tiny church. At some point, Greeley learned how to play the piano. She would sometimes play and sing at church services at Sacred Heart. She was also a friend of Mother Pancratis Bonfils, a principal at St. Mary’s Academy and the founder of Loretto Heights College. After Mother Bonfils died, Greeley had a requiem high mass sung for her.
In Catholic tradition, a Third Order is a group of people who live according to the ideals of a religious order, but who do not take religious vows. In 1901 Greeley joined the Third Order of Saint Francis at the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish at Eleventh and Lawrence. Saint Francis had been born into wealth, but gave it up to pursue his faith. By becoming a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, Greeley was making a spiritual commitment to continue doing what she had been doing for years: to live simply, to love God, and to think of all people as her brothers and sisters.
Love of Children
Julia Greeley’s obituary noted that she “loved children with the intensity found in the saints.” She was always available to look after babies when they were sick or when their mothers needed to run errands. She even arranged picnics for children in Denver’s City Park; Greeley would pack up a lunch, take ten or so children on a trolley ride to the park, and joke with the conductor that all the children were hers.
One day in 1914, Mrs. Agnes Urquhart asked Julia to mop her floor. Noticing religious pictures on the walls, Greeley asked if the Urquharts were Catholic. When Mrs. Urquhart said yes, Julia asked where the children were. There had only been one child, Mrs. Urquhart told her, and he had died from an inability to digest food. Mrs. Urquhart was unable to have any more children. Julia told Mrs. Urquhart that there would be “a little white angel running around the house. I will pray and you will see.”
The only known photo of Julia Greeley shows her with baby Marjorie Urquhart, the “little white angel.” It was taken in April 1916, in Denver’s McDonough Park across Federal Boulevard from St. Catherine’s Church.
Death and Funeral
Julia Greeley died on Friday, June 7, 1918, on the day of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the ideal to which she had devoted her life. The tiny notice in the Denver Post stated that services would be Monday morning at the W.P. Horan & Son funeral chapel. Sometime that Sunday, a decision was made to move the viewing to Loyola Chapel on Ogden Street. No one expected the large crowds that came to see her. For five hours, people from all walks of life in Denver filed past the body.
For more than thirty years, Julia had labored to care for the people of Denver. She had brought fuel to the poor, food to the hungry, and clothes to the needy. But most of her labors had been done at night, in secret. She had not wanted anyone to be embarrassed that it was a black woman coming to help.
It was not until her funeral, with the crowds that came in her honor, that people began to realize the full extent of Julia Greeley’s work. Her obituary in The Denver Catholic Register, complete with a five-tiered banner headline, acknowledged her extraordinary virtues with the line, “Her life reads like that of a canonized saint.”
Nearly a century later, the Catholic Church is exploring whether Julia Greeley might indeed be a saint. On December 18, 2016, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila presided over a special Mass that opened her case for canonization. Canonization is the act of declaring that a person who has died was a saint, and that he or she is included in the canon, or list, of saints. With the opening of her Cause for Sainthood, Julia Greeley is now considered to be a “Servant of God.”
Road to Canonization
The memory of Julia Greeley’s charity has endured nearly a hundred years later. The Archdiocese of Denver used her as their Model of Mercy and produced a short video of her life. The Archdiocese also commissioned an icon of Julia. Icons use a symbolic language of images to communicate a life. In Julia’s case, the pictures include the mountains of Colorado, a child, a firefighter hat and axe, a little red wagon, the Franciscan coat of arms, and a Sacred Heart image.
The process of becoming a saint is long. A special tribunal has begun to examine Julia Greeley’s life, and other commissions in Rome will further review the tribunal’s work. If she were found to have lived a life of “heroic virtue,” there would still need to be two separate instances of miracles, in which people prayed for her assistance and received a miracle, before she might be named a saint.
The actual process of canonization may take years, and its outcome is uncertain. Father Blaine Burkey devoted a full year to researching Julia Greeley’s life, publishing his findings in a book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart. As Father Burkey noted, “people have been saying ever since she died that she ought to be canonized.”