Black Americans on Their Way to Sainthood: Julia Greeley

Julia Greeley (c. 1840 – 1918), Ex-Slave, Housekeeper, “Denver’s Angel of Charity,” Servant of God
By Mike McGowan

Whatever was thrown at her,
Julia kept her good eye on her lover nailed to a cross and
chose to follow his lead in not fighting back,
while sharing his love to all.
Thus in a world, where so much racial vitriol still abounds,
Julia gives all a sterling example of respecting the dignity of all our brothers and sisters.

An Hour with Julia Greeley, Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap, 2020

Julia Greeley lived a humble life devoted to helping those in need and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She is an example to us when we face challenging situations. She also shows us how to love and serve our neighbors compassionately.

Julia was born into slavery in Missouri around 1840. She bore the scars of that inhumane treatment for the rest of her life. Julie’s right eye was permanently blinded at a young age when a slave overseer’s lash grazed it during a beating of Julia’s mother. Julia was emancipated in 1865 around the end of the Civil War. Julie ultimately made her way to Denver, Colorado in 1878 where she worked by day as a housekeeper, cook, and nanny. Any free moment was devoted to service of the poor and to daily prayer.

In a time of racial divide and discrimination—including at church where other parishioners derided Julia’s presence in a prominent front row pew—Julia transcended it. Her spirituality involved “placing all of her day’s activities into the secret service of the Sacred Heart.” (Burkey, 2020)

Julia gave all that she had to others. She was a constant presence pushing her red wagon full of clothes, coal, and groceries she either bought with her limited earnings or begged for through the back streets of Denver to help those in need. Julia performed her charitable work at night to remain anonymous since she wanted to spare poor, white families the embarrassment of receiving charity from a Black woman.

Julia loved children as is captured in the above image, which is based upon the only surviving photograph of her. It shows Julia in the park with little Marjorie Urquhart who is holding Julia’s rosary, one of her prized possessions.

Julie was devoted to the Catholic faith, which she converted to around 1878. She was a daily communicant at Sacred Heart parish in Denver, and a constant evangelist for the devotion to Jesus’s Sacred Heart. She died in 1918 on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. She was mourned by hundreds and was the first lay Catholic to lie in state in a Denver church. Selfless to the end, Julia’s friends buried her, because she had given away her burial plot to a poor man.

Prayer for Julia Greeley

Almighty and ever-living God,
we thank you for the life of your Servant, Julia Greeley,
who burned with great zeal for the proclamation of your Kingdom
and the needs of the poor.
May we imitate her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,
which she encountered each day at holy Mass.
We pray that as you always lift up the lowly to places of honor,
you may someday raise the name of this holy woman to your sacred altar.
We ask this through the Blessed Virgin Mary,
whom Julia so greatly loved and imitated.