Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri. No one told her when she was born, but it is believed to have been sometime between 1833 and 1848. There is much mystery about her early life. We do know her family endured horrific treatment while enslaved. As a young child, Julia lost sight in her right eye when the whip being used on her mother caught Julia’s eye. She never learned to read, write, or do math. In 1865, Julia was freed when the Missouri legislature emancipated enslaved persons in that state.
Most of Julia Greeley’s life was spent in Denver, Colorado. She cleaned houses and cooked for white families, making $10 to $12 per week. She loved children and was always available to help with them. She nursed the sick when needed. Julia lived in a room in a boarding house. She was poor, yet she gave to others out of her meager earnings. When she herself could not buy what people needed, Julia begged from others, for others. She did her charity work at night, secretly walking through the back streets pulling her red wagon with food, fuel, clothing, and other necessities to be left on the doorsteps of people in need. She explained that some people, especially white folks, would be embarrassed to take charity from a Black woman. When picking up dresses from wealthy families, she asked the girls to give them to her while they were still nice. Children living in poverty needed nice things too. She gave to the poor whatever she didn’t need, and sometimes what she did need for herself.
After being baptized into the Catholic faith, Julia was devoted to her parish. She went to Mass daily, cleaned the church, and supported parish activities, regularly selling more tickets to parish events than anyone else. Julia was a constant evangelizer. She was not shy about speaking of her faith and her devotion to the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother. Every first Friday, Julia walked to all twenty fire stations in Denver. She worried about these men with such dangerous jobs and wanted to be sure they were always ready to meet God. She spoke of faith and gave out literature about the Sacred Heart. She walked despite having a body riddled with arthritis. The firefighters welcomed her caring.
Most people ignored this humble woman or considered her a bit of a “character” even as she reached out in kindness to many. With a droopy eye and wrinkled face, she limped and wore a floppy black hat and shabby skirt as she walked among the poor and homeless meeting their physical needs, sharing her faith, wit, and a smile that people never forgot. When she died, people both poor and rich filed past her casket for over five hours. The firefighters and others made sure she had a beautiful grave site, as she had given hers away.
Julia Greeley was a model of Mercy and came to be known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity.” One writer called her a one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society. Hers was not sentimental, but real piety. She prayed faithfully and fasted as a religious act. Her devotion to the Blessed Mother was her inspiration for forgiveness and a spirit of joyfulness. She joined the Secular Franciscans Order in 1901 and was active until her death in 1918. This ordinary woman brought the extraordinary love of God to many.
The Diocese of Denver and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops have officially begun the process that could lead to Julia Greeley’s canonization. She now has the honor of being known as a “Servant of God.”