11: A Model of Saintly Mercy and Freedom: Julia Greeley of Denver Colorado

Saintly former slave to be local model of mercy for Jubilee Year

By Roxanne King , January 07, 2016

She was known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity.” Former slave Julia Greeley had endured brutality; she lost an eye as a child to a whip while she clung to her mother who was being beaten by a slavemaster, and she suffered racism, which sentenced her to menial jobs and poverty. A Catholic convert and daily Communicant, Greeley transcended injustice through her faith and became known for astonishing works of charity despite her meager means. When she died at age 70-85—she didn’t know how old she was—Greeley was so beloved that her body lay in state for five hours as a constant stream of people from all walks of life paid their respect to this saintly woman.

Greeley has been selected as the local face of mercy for Catholics to model during this special jubilee Year of Mercy, which started last month and runs through Nov. 20. The Denver Archdiocese has commissioned a sacred image to be made of her that will be unveiled at the end of the month.

She stood out because of how extraordinary she was,” said David Uebbing, chancellor for the archdiocese. “Even though she was only earning $10 to $12 a month cleaning and cooking, she was using it to help other people who were poor. That spoke volumes about the charitable heart she had. In addition, she had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was known for walking (monthly) to 20 different firehouses to give (felt) badges of the Sacred Heart and tracts to firemen. That brings to life the corporal and spiritual works of mercy this holy year is dedicated to.”

Born as a slave between 1833 and 1848 in Hannibal, Mo., Greeley arrived in Colorado in 1874, 11 years after slaves were freed. In 1878, she came to Denver with Julia Gilpin, a Catholic and wife of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin. Greeley converted to Catholicism in 1880 at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. A daily Mass attendee, she called the Eucharist her “breakfast.”

After leaving the Gilpins’ service, Greeley did odd jobs cooking, cleaning and caring for children and was a familiar sight on Denver streets in her humble clothing, floppy hat and oversized shoes, pulling a red wagon that was filled with items she bought, found or begged for and which she gave to the needy. She frequently delivered the goods—often to poor white families—under cover of night, to remain anonymous. She died on June 7, 1918, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Both Denver dailies and the Denver Catholic Register wrote long obituaries about her.

With just one good eye, Greeley often dabbed at the bad one, which oozed, with a handkerchief. The good woman wasn’t considered very attractive, however, she was known for exuding joy with an unforgettable smile.

I was really happy when I heard the archdiocese was going to include (Greeley) in its Year of Mercy celebration,” said Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley Guild. “We had a saint walking the streets of Denver yet very few people know about her.”

She was treated so miserably in many ways and yet she spent her whole life helping people,” Franciscan Father Blaine said. “She practiced the works of mercy in a heroic degree.” (From: The Denver Catholic, with permission)

The practical living out of the works of love and mercy is available to us all no matter what the circumstances of our lives. Let us pray that we, too, can model the mercy of God in everything we do!