Franciscans and Julia’s Cause
by Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap.
Several Mid-American Capuchins have become involved in promoting the fame of Julia Greeley, a saintly ex-slave who died in Denver in 1918. Julia earned her keep serving various families as a domestic worker and then gave all that was left to assist the poor of Denver. When this was not sufficient, she begged for the poor. One writer penned her “a one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society.”
Julia was also a staunch promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart and on foot regularly distributed Catholic literature to all the fire stations of Denver. When she died in 1918, Jesuit parish priests buried her from Sacred Heart Church, but surprisingly in the habit of the Third Order Franciscans, now known as Secular Franciscans (O.F.S.).
There were no Capuchin Franciscans in Denver when Julia arrived in 1879 or 1880. In fact, so far as is known, there were no Franciscans of any kind.
Frs. Francis Koch, O.F.M., and Venantius Eder, O.F.M., came in 1887 to staff St. Elizabeth Church and immediately began promoting the O.F.S. Someone else, however, had already started the secular fraternity at St. Elizabeth’s, possibly diocesan priest Fr. Frederick Bender. The fraternity’s records list 11 men and women who made profession in the latter part of 1886.
Julia Greeley joined the Franciscan Family in February of 1901. Her profession as Sr. Elizabeth of the Secular Franciscans was received by Fr. Francis. From then on she regularly attended fraternity meetings at St. Elizabeth’s and encouraged many others to join the group. Reflecting on Julia being buried in the Franciscan habit, Jesuit Fr. Eugene Murphy opined, “Here was the secret of her influence. She had taken Christ literally, as had the Poverello of Assisi. Like him, she had given away all to the poor and had gone about making melody in her heart unto the Lord.”
I first heard of Julia through an article I read about her in the Denver Catholic Register years before coming to Denver. Noting she was a Secular Franciscan, I resolved to find out more about our saintly sister. Last year I finally followed up on the resolve, and it quickly snowballed into my writing, with the encouragement of Provincial Minister Fr. Charles Polifka and other leaders of the province, the recently published documentary study, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart.
Discussion about my study led Fr. Gene Emrisek, pastor of Julia’s parish, where her life is still remembered through her obituary enshrined at the very entrance to the parish offices, to gather representatives of several organizations and other individuals who had made known their interest in Julia. These quickly formed the Julia Greeley Guild and began plans to publish my book and take initial steps toward asking the Church to begin Julia’s cause for canonization, something that had been discussed ever since her death 94 years ago. This group included Fr. Christopher Popravak, spiritual assistant of Julia’s local Secular Franciscan fraternity, as well as other members of the local and regional fraternities.
While the book was still being researched, our provincial development office asked if I would be willing to lead a pilgrimage to sites connected with Julia’s life. Special Events Director Gina Francis took care of the logistics; and on February 12, Frs. Bill Kraus and Regis Scanlon, Brs. Benignus Scarry and Augustine Rohde, and our three postulants were on the full 40-passenger bus making the pilgrimage.
Meanwhile another group of people, led by Fr. Regis, former archdiocesan director of prison ministry, had begun a campaign to start a program for homeless single women, many of whom have serious problems returning to civilian life from the prison system. Learning about Julia Greeley’s love for the neglected, this group decided to put its program under her patronage. The home is still doing quite well.
Elsewhere in town a totally different group of people, all friends of Fr. John Cousins, provincial spiritual assistant of the O.F.S. and former pastor of Cure d’Ars Church, set out to begin a non-diocesan Catholic elementary school in an otherwise unserved neighborhood. In March, the board of Sister Blandina School, Inc., decided to name its first campus, in the Park Hill Neighborhood, the Julia Greeley Academy. The school operated for two years, but was not able to keep itself financially solvent.