A white marble tomb stands to the left of the altar in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. It is the only tomb in the whole building.
Yet surprisingly, the remains inside do not belong to a priest, bishop, cardinal, founder of a religious order or doctor of theology.
Instead, they belong to an uneducated and marginalized woman who has spent her life struggling to find steady work. Her name is Julia Greeley and she may well become America’s first black saint.
Her cause for canonization was officially opened at the end of 2016, giving her the title of “Servant of God”.
Born into slavery in the 1830s or 40s, young Julia lost her right eye under the whipping of a cruel overseer who abused her mother. Emancipated in 1865, she finally went to Denver, where she took up a job as a servant. Shortly after arriving, she converted to Catholicism and wholeheartedly embraced her new Catholic faith.
Holding a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Greeley always attended daily Mass at his home parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church. While on his way to Mass for the Feast of the Sacred Heart on June 7, 1918, Greeley fell ill and died later that day.
One would expect everyone to gloss over Greeley’s death as she had no known family. However, when he woke up, something unexpected happened. For five consecutive hours, dozens of mourners came to pay their respects.
As the crowd began to talk, Greeley’s hidden life surfaced as everyone had a story about this humble woman known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity”.
When Greeley wasn’t working, she spent her time visiting friends and neighbors. All the while, she was taking mental notes of what they were missing. Then, once she identified a need, she searched, begged, and even spent her meager salary to acquire the missing items.
At night, Greeley would undertake to deliver his goods under cover of darkness to refrain from embarrassing anyone. Pulling a red cart through the streets, she acted like a modern-day St. Nicholas by secretly leaving acquired items on her doorstep.
“She was a Society of St. Vincent de Paul woman,” said Mary Leisring, president and director of the Julia Greeley Guild. “Her whole behavior was to help others, even though she herself didn’t have much.”
Leisring, an original advocate for spreading the Greeley story, felt there was something exceptional about her when she first heard of Greeley.
“Julia was a true follower,” she said. “Everything she did was taken from the Gospels. Caring for her siblings, giving others her last…Julia didn’t just talk, she walked.
“Reveal the Gift: Living the Feminine Genius,” which includes a Leisring-edited chapter on Greeley’s generosity, further shares:
“Julia’s generosity truly knew no bounds. … Stories say she found and delivered strollers to pregnant women, carrying a mattress on her back through a dark alley at night, and providing funeral clothes and food whenever a family was grieving. Once, she even ceded her grave to a deceased old black man to prevent him from being buried in a potter’s field. For her, finding ways to provide for others stemmed from her trust in the providence of Jesus, and giving was a privilege and a joy.
Greeley experienced the bodily works of mercy, but her holy actions did not end there as she also experienced the spiritual works of mercy.
“Despite the racial injustices she suffered, Julia did not waver in her concern for the poor and spread devotion to the Sacred Heart, especially among firefighters,” shared David Uebbing, Vice Postulator for the cause. canonization of Greeley.
As Uebbing explained, Greeley went to every fire station in Denver each month to distribute red rosaries, Sacred Heart badges, and flyers that promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the firefighters were engaged in dangerous work, she urged them to take care of their souls and be prepared for death at all times.
“By discovering Julia, we can learn little things we can do that make a difference in people’s lives,” Leisring said, “You don’t have to be a CEO or hold a prestigious position to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“Her story was present in the streets, homes and alleys of Denver and on a bench at the Left Front of Sacred Heart Parish,” Uebbing said, “She did not participate in events or ceremonies. that made the headlines, she was humbly serving others without thinking of seeking the limelight.
The next step in Greeley’s cause would be a declaration that she lived a life of heroic virtue, giving her the title “Venerable”. After that, it would usually take two miracles attributed to his intercession and verified, one for his beatification and one for his canonization.
Only time will tell if “Servant of God” Julia Greeley will become Saint Julia Greeley. Until then, looking to her as an example of true discipleship can undoubtedly inspire Catholics to be a little more faithful and generous.
Cotter is a Catholic lecturer and the author of “Reveal the Gift: Living the Feminine Genius”.