During Black History Month this story out of Denver introduces us to yet another saintly woman. To rise out of slavery and then dedicate her life to enhance the quality of life for others continues to inspire. Julia Greeley is such a woman.
In April 2009, the Denver Catholic Register wrote an article titled “Denver’s Saintly Woman: Julia Greeley.” This “saintly woman” was a former slave who came to Denver in the employ of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin, in 1874.
Greeley entered the Catholic Church in 1880 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Denver. From then on she was known for a great devotion to the Sacred Heart and regularly traveled around distributing the Sacred Heart Magazine, leaflets, medals and rosaries.
Discalced Carmelite Sister Celine referred to Julia Greeley as “everybody’s saint” who supplied “help of any kind, wherever, whenever, tirelessly, in heat or bitter cold.” She was regularly seen traveling in back alleys carrying firewood, food or a bundle of clothing on her back, delivering it to someone in need.
Greeley earned about $10 a month in her work as a domestic in private homes or rectories. From these earnings she helped the poor and even gave to a destitute man her own burial plot, which had been left to her by a Mrs. Gilpin. She helped to restore women’s dignity in a unique way. She begged wealthy women to donate their dresses, and then she restored them for underpaid working class girls. With acceptable clothes, the young women could attend church or go to a social gathering in search of a suitor, avoiding shame.
Julia’s devotion to the Eucharist was well known. She traveled from one church to another to participate in Forty Hour’s devotion. She could be seen kneeling motionless, with perfect posture, absorbed in adoration of the Eucharist. When parishioners objected to her approaching for Communion in her hand-me-down work clothing and oversized shoes, Jesuit Father Edward Barry refused to buckle to the elite’s prejudice.
When she died on the feast of the Sacred Heart June 7, 1918, a multitude of rich and poor citizens streamed past her coffin paying their respects as Julia lay in state at Sacred Heart Church, an honor given to no other lay person in Denver, reported in the September 1943 Colorado Magazine.
There is a reported miraculous cancer healing attributed to Julia’s intercession in 1941 and witnessed by Denver physician Martin Currigan. When Julia’s body was moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery it was said to be incorrupt, another sign of saint-like quality.
In the light of these facts, ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women) a Catholic women’s organization dedicated to upholding the dignity of woman, picked Julia Greeley as the model for their annual award dinner to a woman who exemplifies the best qualities of true feminism in a unique way. The time may come when she will be canonized a saint within the United States.
This year’s National Day of Prayer for the African American and African Family also encouraged families to seek refuge and hope in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Its theme is “Jesus consecrate our hearts and families to your most sacred heart.
Mary L. Leisring is director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver.