Colorado History

Angel of Charity Julia Greeley's Path to Possible Sainthood

The only known photo of Julia Greeley.
The only known photo of Julia Greeley. Courtesy the Julia Greeley Guild
Former slave Julia Greeley walked the streets of Denver from the late 1860s until her death in 1918, offering whatever help she could to anyone who needed it.

Much of Greeley's work went unheralded; she knew that white families would struggle to accept charity from a Black person, so she often delivered groceries and other supplies at night, to spare them any shame they might feel. But after she died, her body lay in state at the Loyola Chapel for five hours as streams of people came to pay their respects. She's still the only Catholic layperson to lie in state in Denver. Now she could become Colorado’s first saint.

In 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver officially opened a cause to canonize Greeley. It completed its investigation in September 2018 and sent its findings to Rome. In January, the archdiocese received word that the Vatican had approved the investigation. The next step? Someone in the Vatican has to write a position paper demonstrating that Greeley was virtuous enough to join the ranks of the more than 10,000 Catholic saints and present it to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

One other Coloradan has reached this point: Father Leo Heinrichs, who was shot and killed by Giuseppe Alia, an immigrant from Sicily, while giving mass at St. Elizabeth’s Parish in Denver in 1908. His cause has been open since 1938, demonstrating how slow the process can be. Although another saint is commonly associated with Colorado, having founded an orphanage and summer camp for girls on Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini spent limited time here. Greeley, on the other hand, elected to make her home in Colorado.

Greeley came to Denver after the Missouri Emancipation Act of 1865 freed her from slavery. Although records weren't kept for slaves, she's estimated to have been born between 1833 and 1848. One of her eyes was damaged; she'd been injured when she hid behind her mother during a whipping by a slave master. Greeley's physical disability, combined with the fact that she did her good works in a city that was largely segregated at the time, makes her life even more admirable, according to Mary Callan, executive director of the Julia Greeley Home.

“In spite of all these challenges, she was able to live this noble life,” Callan says.

The Julia Greeley Home was started by Father Regis Scanlon in 2013; its mission is to help single women caught in the cycle of homelessness, especially those who were previously in prison, rebuild their lives. The facility is run by Catholics but serves women regardless of their spiritual background. Even those who aren’t Catholic report finding Greeley's story “astonishing and inspiring,” Callan says. “Keep in mind that we make sure to look beyond race or beyond poverty or beyond someone's rank or position in society."

The move to make Greeley a saint isn't the only push to honor a woman now known as Denver's Angel of Charity. Father Blaine Burkey, who wrote the definitive book about Greeley — 2012's In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: Remembering the Life and Virtues of Denver’s Angel of Charity — recently nominated the boardinghouse in Five Points where Greeley lived to become one of Historic Denver's 50 Actions for 50 Places.
click to enlarge Julia Greeley was a member of the secular Franciscan Order during her life. Father Blaine Burkey, the archivist at St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Denver, complied the defining work about her life. - COURTESY THE JULIA GREELEY GUILD
Julia Greeley was a member of the secular Franciscan Order during her life. Father Blaine Burkey, the archivist at St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Denver, complied the defining work about her life.
Courtesy the Julia Greeley Guild
During the 2018-19 school year, Maggie Ellis, a fifth-grade teacher at Annunciation Catholic School, led her students on a deep dive into Greeley's life during a session called “Becoming Holy Heroes.” Because a majority of her students are Mexican-American or immigrants from South Sudan and come from low-income homes, Ellis wanted to teach them about representation in superhero movies after Black Panther was a big hit. Then she transitioned to teaching them what it means to be a saint — the Catholic version of a superhero. She chose to focus on Greeley because her home was close to the school.

“It's our job as Catholic educators to meet our kids where they're at and to help them see themselves as saints and to see themselves as people who can do good things,” Ellis notes. “I had so many kids just in awe that someone from our neighborhood who walks the same streets that we walk every day could become a saint. That was really impactful for them. I think also the fact that she was a person of color is huge, because often it is hard for my students to see themselves in the media in a positive light.”

As a final project, the class wrote and illustrated a children’s book about Greeley’s life. The Julia Greeley Guild, an organization dedicated to celebrating Greeley's legacy, worked with a publisher to print the book, which has now gone into a second printing; it's sold at the Cathedral Basilica in Denver and through the guild.

Greeley has other big fans. Derrick Johnson, a lieutenant in the Denver Fire Department who was recently ordained as a Catholic deacon, considers it remarkable that such an ordinary person did so much good despite the odds stacked against her.

Greeley was particularly concerned with the well-being of firefighters. On the first Friday of every month, Catholics celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the way Greeley observed was to walk to every fire station in Denver, handing out pamphlets and buttons depicting the Sacred Heart for the firefighters and praying with them. When her body was exhumed from Mount Olivet Cemetery — part of the process of becoming a saint — investigators discovered she had severe arthritis, making her walking journey even more remarkable. Greeley is now the only person interred at the Cathedral Basilica in Denver.

Johnson first learned about Denver's Angel of Charity when he was becoming a deacon and everyone kept asking him, “Oh, have you heard of Julia Greeley?” He brushed them off at the time because he was busy with his family and his job as a firefighter. But a year later, a priest named Ron Cattany asked Johnson to help him figure out which fire stations Greeley had visited.

“Then it really hit me that she had this great devotion to Denver firefighters, and I felt like an idiot because I'm sitting there going, ‘That's why everybody keeps on coming up to me talking to me about this,’” Johnson recalls. “She just loved firefighters. She knew that the firefighters of that time faced great dangers, more dangers than we face today as firefighters, and so she was concerned for their souls.”

Now a chaplain for the fire department, Johnson says he tries to emulate Greeley. “We all look for role models,” he explains. “Oftentimes they are looked at as these people that are so unapproachable because they're so much holier and they live so far away. I can go and I can trace Julia's steps today. I can go into the exact place where she was.”
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire