Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Servant of God Julia Greeley
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave who became known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” devoted herself to helping the poor, even though she was perpetually close to destitution herself.
Little is known about Greeley’s early life, other than that she was born into slavery, probably between the years 1833 and 1848, in Hannibal, Missouri. She lost her right eye at the age of five to the whip of a slave master who was beating Greeley’s mother. She was freed in 1865, a few months before the conclusion of the Civil War.
Starting in 1869, she worked in St. Louis as a nanny and maid, eventually for Julia Pratt Dickerson, a widow and devout Catholic who in 1874 married former Colorado governor William Gilpin.
In 1879, Greeley accompanied the Gilpins to Denver and in 1880 received conditional baptism at Denver’s Sacred Heart Church. A year after moving with the family to Edgerton, Colorado, her service ended and she worked for families in Cimarron, New Mexico, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
By 1894 she had returned to Denver for good. She earned $10 to $12 a month cooking and cleaning, and spent the rest of her time collecting—or when need be begging—food, clothing, and toys for the poor.
She became a familiar sight on the streets, pulling the battered red wagon she used to distribute her goods.
She became a daily communicant at Sacred Heart Church, a Jesuit parish, and developed a particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Blessed Sacrament, and the Sacred Heart itself. She made monthly rounds on foot with her Sacred Heart League leaflets and felt badges, making sure to visit all twenty Denver Firehouses.
In 1901, she was professed a Third Order Franciscan.
The only known photo of Greeley, taken in Denver’s McDonough Park in 1916, shows her in a wide-brimmed hat and summer dress, smiling broadly, clutching a rosary and holding a white toddler. She did much of her work by night, mindful that white families might be embarrassed by accepting charity from a black woman.
Father Blaine Burkey, O.F.M., CAP., sets forth some of the more notable stories about this extraordinary figure in his book in Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley.
Greeley died, as she had lived, in poverty. On June 7, 1918—the feast of the Sacred Heart—she was on her way to Mass when she suddenly fell ill and was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she received the last rites and died.
She lay in state at Sacred Heart Church that night for five hours. Word of her death spread throughout the city like wildfire. Throngs of mourners, some arriving by limousine, passed by her casket.
Her funeral the following Monday was likewise mobbed.
In January 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver opened the cause for her possible sainthood.
Someone once assured her, “In heaven, you’ll be white.” Rather, Julia Greeley was white in the only way that matters—that is, pure of heart—on earth. In heaven, I imagine, her black skin glows and her one good eye shines a strange and radiant light.