HIGHEST HONOR EVER PAID TO
DEAD LAIC HERE GOES TO NEGRESS
Miss Julia Greeley, a Former Slave, Most
Wonderful Apostle of the Sacred Heart
YEARS OF HEROIC PIETY BRING OLD COLORED WOMAN
PRIVILEGE OF DYING ON HER LOVED PATRON’S FEAST DAY
Body Lies in State Five Hours Before
Altar While Throngs Pay Her Honor
HER CHARITY KNEW NO BOUNDS
The highest honor that has ever been paid to a Colorado Catholic layman immediately following death has been given within the last week to a negress, Julia Greeley, an aged woman who died in poverty in the Sacred Heart parish, but who is declared by the Jesuit Fathers of that church to have been the most zealous apostle of the Sacred Heart they have ever known.
And she died on the feast of the Sacred Heart. Her end came unexpectedly. But she received the full rites of the Church. The time of her death, considering the work she did in life, makes it look as if the very finger of God was present.
Body Lies in State in Church
She has the distinction of being the only simple Catholic layman in the history of Denver whose dead body lay in state in a Catholic church. From 3 until 8 o’clock on Sunday, her remains reposed in Loyola chapel, where they were viewed by a constant stream of people. There had been no great write-ups in the daily papers. How in the world all the people learned of her death and of the fact that she was to lie in state is astonishing. The fact that the news spread so quickly, without the assistance of the printed word, is proof of the great love which the Denver public had for this quaint and saintly old character.
Her life reads like that of a canonized saint. She was somewhere between 76 and 80 years old and was born in slavery, having been freed in the Civil War. She did not remember a great deal about her earlier life, *but she lived at one time in Wisconsin, as is shown on her baptismal record.* [see note below] She was *brought West from St. Louis by Mrs. Dickerson,* [see note below] a widow, a member of the family that led the social life of St. Louis. Mrs. Dickerson married Governor Gilpin, the great pioneer Governor of Colorado. She was a devout Catholic, and it was due to her influence, under God, that Julia Greeley became a Catholic. It is also interesting to note that Mrs. Dickerson’s constant prayers finally won the conversion of her famous second husband. She constantly urged Father Brucker, S.J., of the Sacred Heart church, to pray to the Good Thief for Governor Gilpin, since the Good Thief was Christ’s last convert before his Death on Calvary. The priest gave her an approved prayer of the Church to this Good Thief, and the happy woman had the consolation of seeing Governor Gilpin receive the last rites of the Catholic Church shortly before his death.
In Parish Since Founding
After her conversion, Julia Greeley for a long time attended the old Cathedral on Stout street, and she is remembered by pioneer Catholics as a familiar figure there. But she had been identified with the Sacred Heart parish ever since its establishment in 1879. And no other layman has worked harder from that day to this for the upbuilding of the church.
She has been a daily Communicant practically ever since her conversion, said Father [Charles A.] McDonnell, S.J., this week. She was charitable to an astonishing degree and had a devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Virgin and the Blessed Sacrament that was marvelous. “It was not sentimentality, but real piety,” said the priest.
No other Denverite has equaled her record in distributing Sacred Heart League leaflets. Denver is a big city and very widespread, but she used to visit every firehouse and hand out leaflets to the Catholic firemen. There was not a fireman, Catholic or non-Catholic, in Denver who did not know old Julia, for she never missed a month going the rounds with the leaflets. She took copies of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart to every firehouse monthly, and often gave the boys there other Catholic literature. As regular as clockwork every year, she got fifty subscriptions to The Messenger of the Sacred Heart and sold something like 200 Catholic almanacs. And she could neither read, write nor count!
Begged for the Poor
Her charity was so great that only God knows its extent. She was constantly visiting the poor and giving them assistance from her own slender means. When she found their needs so great that she could not help them with her own goods, she begged for them. Her charity was as delicate as it was great. She realized that white people, no matter how poor, might feel a little sensitive in receiving assistance from an old colored woman, so she went at night to their homes to deliver the goods she had begged, in order to keep the neighbors from seeing her. She had even been seen going thru the streets at night with a mattress on her back. Many and many a times she was seen carrying coal and groceries. Yet she was so poor herself that the city charity department had been furnishing her with fuel and groceries.
On one occasion, a priest of the Sacred Heart parish found her pushing a baby carriage along at night. She had found a poor family that needed it. So she had gone out and begged for it. On another occasion one of the Jesuits met her carrying a broken doll. In answer to his questions, she told him that she was taking it home to fix it up and intended to give it to some child.
Lover of Children
She loved children with that intensity found in the saints. When some woman of the neighborhood wanted to go shopping and Julia was around, Julia was always willing to look after the babies. Every door in the parish was open to her. Her marvelous piety and her constant charity made her the friend of everybody. She was known in every convent of Denver, for, as might be expected, she loved Sisters. And the Sisters loved her. It was a standing rule at the Sacred Heart rectory that Julia could come in and get a meal any time she wanted it. She could not possibly wear out her welcome.
* She was left a little money by the Gilpins, but lost $900 in the failure of a Denver bank.* [see note below] Whatever else she had, she gave away. Nobody asked for help in vain from Julia Greeley. She was victimized many times by charity frauds. But Julia’s rule seemingly was that it was better to give than to be too careful and deny assistance to someone who needed it.
She earned about $10 or $12 a month. She swept and dusted the Sacred Heart church every week and did other little odd jobs. With this little money and what she got from the city, she found enough to live and to help others. She had a little room on Walnut and Twenty-eighth. Here she lived alone, for Julia Greeley never married. She left no relatives so far as is known.
She never ate any breakfast, except when she was going to do heavy work and it was absolutely necessary to have sustenance. This fasting was a religious act, and was not caused by her poverty, for her friends would gladly have given her this meal. She was asked various times by Father McDonnell, whether she had eaten breakfast and replied: “My Communion is my breakfast.”
Last Friday, she was on her way to the Sacred Heart church to receive Communion and hear Mass. She became very ill and went to a colored friend’s home across the street from the rectory. One of the priests was called. She was removed to St. Joseph’s hospital and died late that day, after being fortified by a saintly life and all the last sacraments of the Church.
When her body lay in state, limousines and giant touring cars came carrying the rich to see her. The poor flocked to the chapel in throngs. When Father McDonnell recited the Rosary for her soul at 7:30, the chapel was well filled.
The Sacred Heart church was crowded Monday morning at her funeral. The prosperous and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the prominent and the unknown were there—proud to pay homage to the aged negress.
Father McDonnell celebrated the Solemn High Mass, Father Walter Grace was the deacon and the Rev. John Conway, S.J., whom she had held often in her arms as a baby, was subdeacon. Father McDonnell spoke, bringing out most of the facts related above.
She was buried in the finest plot procurable in Mount Olivet cemetery. She had a splendid funeral. W. P. Horan, who managed it gave her the best he knew how and was present himself at her burial and when her body was placed in the chapel.
Member of Third Order
She was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis at St. Elizabeth’s church, and was buried in the Franciscan habit. She constantly worked for the upbuilding of Sacred Heart parish. Whenever a fair or a play or any other benefit was held, Julia always sold more tickets than anybody else. She was not at all beautiful physically. One eye was gone and her face was wrinkled. But she had a smile that you could never forget. When Mother Pancratia Bonfils, founder of Loretto Heights academy, died a few years ago, Julia went to the Sacred Heart rectory and arranged to have a High Mass sung for her soul. “She was good to me,” she said. “She told me that I would be white in heaven.”
Her skin was black, but her heart was whiter than the purest snow. She would as soon have confessed her sins on the street as anywhere else, for she did nothing of which she could be very ashamed. So do you wonder that this old negro woman had the distinction of being called to the other life on the Feast of the Sacred Heart?
*A Few Corrections*
The above obituary, probably written by the editor Matthew Smith (later a priest and monsignor), was the best information available at the time of Julia’s death. Earlier documents, found only just recently, show, however, that
1. Julia’s baptismal record says nothing about her having lived in Wisconsin.
2. Julia brought herself to Denver, after assuring herself that Mrs. Gilpin would hire her.
3. Gov. Gilpin died intestate, and Mrs. Gilpin left Julia only $100 in a contingent legacy, which in the end left her nothing. Thus she lost nothing in a bank failure.
These and other matters have been examined extensively in a 150-page book, written by Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap., entitled In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: Remembering the Life and Virtues of Denver’s Angel of Charity, Julia Greeley, O.F.S., recalled by her contemporaries in their own words. Published by the Julia Greeley Guild in 2012, the book is available at Denver Catholic book stores and elsewhere.