Black Catholics, heroic lives

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

We have chosen to honor four of the most influential African-American Catholics in the history of the United States during Black Catholic month. Three of them have canonization causes opened: Julia Greeley, Father Augustus Tolton and Mother Mary Lange. Pray for their intercession and cause. All portraits were painted by Anthony VanArsdale.

Julia Greeley

Known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity,” Julia Greeley was born into slavery between 1833 and 1848. As a child, Greeley’s right eye was permanently damaged from her salve master’s whip, as he beat her mother. After gaining freedom, she moved from Missouri to the Midwest. In Denver, she entered the Church and gave of herself heroically. Greeley spent many nights providing necessary supplies for people in need, silently. She walked everywhere, despite her arthritis, and carried all the supplies in a little red wagon. Her pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver considered her the most fervent promoter of the Sacred Heart he had ever seen. Hundreds of people assisted her funeral to pay respect to the Godly woman. For more details, see juliagreeley.org.

Julia answered Jesus’ call to tell others about his love… with a humble simplicity and a sense of humor.” – Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

Father Augustus Tolton

Father August Tolton was the first black Catholic priest in the United States. Father Tolton was born to two slaves in 1854. After being rejected by every seminary in the United States, his bishop helped him enter seminary in Rome, at age 26. Upon ordination, he was appointed to his home diocese in Illinois. Father Tolton experienced much racism from fellow priests and superiors. After several requests, he was transferred to the diocese of Chicago, and was considered a failure. With all African-Americans to his care, he worked tirelessly to acquire help for the poor and build a church for his community. He died at age 43, after fatigue and exhaustion had become his companions. For more information, visit toltoncanonization.org.

The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery – that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both.” – Father Augustus Tolton

Mother Mary Lange

Mother Mary Lange Founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation for African-American women. Born Elizabeth Lange in Cuba, around 1794, she received an excellent education as a child – a privilege that would allow her to teach many children and orphans of color after moving to Baltimore. Elizabeth joyfully accepted a priest’s invitation to establish a religious congregation devoted to the education of African-American girls. She took the name Mary, in a time when many Catholics thought that black religious women were a disgrace. Through many oppositions, Mother Mary kept her faith in Providence, giving herself and all material possessions for the well-being of those whom she served. See www.oblatesisters.com for more details.

She overcame so many obstacles… She founded the order before the Emancipation Proclamation. She had to deal with racism… Yet she cared so much and was so strong.” – Sister Mary Alexis Fisher, O.S.P., superior general

Daniel Rudd

Daniel Rudd was a Catholic layman, civil activist and son of former slaves. Born in Kentucky in 1854, Rudd proclaimed that the Catholic Church welcomed African-Americans, in a time of declared segregation among Christians. He founded the first newspaper by an African-American, the American Catholic Tribune, in 1886. The paper would become a stepping stone for Rudd’s real vision: In 1889, he held the first National Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C. A talented journalist, speaker, and teacher, Rudd would become one of the most influential African-American Catholics in U.S. history.

[The Catholic Church] is the only place on this Continent where rich and poor, white and black, must drop prejudice at the threshold and go hand in hand to the altar.” – Daniel Rudd

COMING UP: Former slave Julia Greeley first to be buried at Denver’s Cathedral

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In what was a historic first for the Archdiocese of Denver, the exhumed remains of a potential saint were laid to rest at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception June 7.

The canonization process for the Servant of God Julia Greeley was opened Dec. 18, and as part of the process, her remains were exhumed from Mt. Olivet Cemetery May 26-31. After careful examination by an anthropologist, her remains were transferred to the cathedral, where they will remain permanently.

Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez presides over the Transfer of the Remains Ceremony for Servant of God Julia Greeley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

A transfer ceremony, presided over by Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez, was held to honor the laywoman, who is the first person to be buried at the cathedral. The ceremony took place on the 99th anniversary of Greeley’s death.

“[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?” Bishop Rodriguez said to an applauding congregation.

Greeley exemplified three qualities of holiness throughout her life, Bishop Rodriguez said: humility, perseverance and faith. She was known for walking the streets of Denver, handing out Sacred Heart pamphlets to firefighters and delivering goods to poor families. What wasn’t known, however, was that she suffered from arthritis – a fact revealed by the exhumation and examination of her bones.

Members of the congregation venerate the mortal remains of Servant of God Julia Greeley during the Transfer of the Remains Ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“We know from the stories passed on to us that Julia Greeley was tireless in her charity and in spreading the faith,” Bishop Rodriguez explained. “What we didn’t know until the exhumation is that Julia suffered from arthritis in her hands, feet, back…almost every joint that could have hurt, probably did. Nevertheless, she never stopped practicing and doing and showing love.”

Dr. Christine Pink, the forensic anthropologist responsible for the exhumation of Greeley’s remains, confirmed that Greeley did indeed suffer from arthritis.

“The finding of arthritis was special just given what we know about her walking to all the fire stations and doing what she did. She likely was in pain, and joyful despite that,” Pink said.

Dr. Christine Pink, a forensic anthropologist with Metropolitan State University of Denver, and Gary Schaaf prepare to process into the Cathedral with mortal remains of Servant of God Julia Greeley of the Transfer of the Remains Ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

The bishop spoke of the hope that the ceremony represented – hope that because of Christ’s conquering of the grace, the dead will one day, too, be resurrected.

“Our ceremony today is just a very small confession that we believe in resurrection of the body and in the communion of saints. This is why we are here in this place,” he said. “We are saying those bones will rise on the last day, and today, we are particularly united to Julia Greeley.”

[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”

The remains of Julia Greeley were placed in a custom made wooden funerary box, and the faithful were invited to view them. As people came up, they would bow in reverence, kiss the funerary box and even place cloths, rosaries and other items on the case that housed her remains. Those items could become third-class relics should Julia Greeley be canonized a saint.

After the viewing, the box was screwed shut by a carpenter, sealed with gold wax and placed underneath the Sacred Heart statue in the side chapel to the west of the main altar.

The Transfer of the Remains Ceremony for Servant of God Julia Greeley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

The day had come sooner than expected for some.

“This is a great day. We never thought it would come so soon when we started to move things, but God certainly had his own plan,” said Capuchin Friar Father Blaine Burkey, whose book In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley is likely the most extensive volume compiled about Julia Greeley’s life.

Members of the congregation venerate the mortal remains of Servant of God Julia Greeley during the Transfer of the Remains Ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley guild, was overjoyed to see the cathedral full of so many devoted to Greeley.

“Whether she gets to be a saint in Rome or not does not matter to me, she’s already my saint,’ Leisring said.