On the streets of post-Civil War Denver, Julia Greeley was unmistakable as she stood at doorsteps of poor families in the middle of the night, pulling a red wagon behind her and wearing a floppy black hat. Because the former slave lost an eye as a child when she was whipped by a slave master in Hannibal, Mo., some people in Denver knew her as one-eyed Julia.
But most called her an angel of charity.
She brought food, coal and clothing, sometimes even hauling mattresses on her back to help families in need. Working as a housekeeper for white families, Greeley, a devout Catholic, gave away much of what she earned to the poor. At one point she even gave away her own burial plot. After hearing a poor African American man was about to be thrown in a pauper’s grave, she wanted him to have hers.
By the time she died — 100 years ago this week, on June 7, 1918 — she was so beloved in Denver that wealthy families bought her a new grave. Hundreds of people, black and white, poor and rich, attended her funeral at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which was covered in newspapers as far as New York. For the first time in Denver history, newspapers said then, a layperson’s dead body lay in state in a Catholic church, an honor then reserved for priests and bishops and others of high holy order.
People thought Greeley lived like a saint then — and now, a century after her death, the Archdiocese of Denver is seeking to make it official.
On Thursday, Greeley will be entombed at Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her death. The tomb is white marble, sculpted specially for Greeley in Italy. Her remains were exhumed last year as part of the canonization process for sainthood and, once again, a large crowd paid respects as her bones were laid out in the cathedral for all to see. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the go-ahead to open the cause for Greeley’s canonization process in 2016, which formally happened in December of that year. She has since been awarded the designation as “Servant of God.”
Julia Greeley “will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jorge H. Rodríguez, who led last year’s ceremony, according to Denver Catholic. “Not a bishop, not a priest — a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”
Greeley is one of six African Americans and three former slaves under review for sainthood.
Greeley came to Denver in the 1870s, following her emancipation, with a woman for whom she worked as a domestic servant. The woman would go on to marry William Gilpin, Colorado’s first territorial governor, and Greeley stayed on as their housekeeper. She converted to Catholicism in 1880 because Gilpin’s family was Catholic, and she used her proximity to Denver’s wealthiest families to solicit donations and raise money for the church, using her own meager wages to do the same.
She would give fancy dresses the wealthy ladies no longer wore to the poorer girls who had no dresses to wear to school socials. She’d regularly visit all the firemen in Denver to distribute Catholic leaflets so they’d know what to pray inside burning buildings. When she visited poor white families, knowing they would be embarrassed about taking charity from an old black woman, she was discreet, knocking on their doors late at night while the neighbors were asleep.
“Every time I talk about her story I get heart palpitations because I get so excited about it,” said Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley Guild, which seeks to spread awareness of Greeley’s story. “Everybody’s not going to be a Mother Teresa, but Julia can show everybody that you can be ordinary and become extraordinary, just by being selfless and giving. She didn’t have a lot, but she gave what she could.”
Canonization is a famously lengthy process within the Catholic Church, and there is no telling how long it may take for Greeley, or whether she will ever complete it.
“We didn’t start the Julia Greeley Guild thinking that she was going to become a saint,” Leisring said, “because to most of us she’s already a saint.”
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