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

Aaron Lambert

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.

COMING UP: “Simple, humble” Julia Greeley placed on path to sainthood

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An ex-slave from Hannibal, Missouri, who found her way to Denver and the Catholic Church in the late 1800s, is now the first person the Archdiocese of Denver has proposed for sainthood.

The canonization process for Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” Julia Greeley, was officially opened with a special Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 18.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrated the Mass, during which the official edict proclaiming Greeley’s cause for sainthood was presented before the congregation, and members of the historical council and tribunal responsible for investigating her heroic virtues were sworn in.

“It is a historic movement for the Archdiocese of Denver as we move forward the first of the sessions toward the canonization of the servant of God, Julia Greeley,” Archbishop Aquila said during his homily. “It is truly wondrous when one looks at this simple, humble woman – a laywoman who is known because of her deep faith in Christ.”

David Uebbing, chancellor of the archdiocese, was sworn in Sunday as the vice-postulator of the cause, which means that he will help to oversee the investigation. “For the first time in the 129-year history of the Archdiocese of Denver, we have officially begun investigating the possibility that a saint lived in our midst,” Uebbing told Denver Catholic.

“I have already seen how news of Julia Greeley’s cause opening has brought joy and inspiration to people throughout northern Colorado,” he added, “and I believe that as knowledge of her spreads, more people will seek to follow her example of love for the poor and marginalized, in imitation of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, which she loved so much.”

Mary Lesiring, current director of the Julia Greeley guild, retraced the life of Julia Greeley at the Mass. An impoverished woman herself, Greeley was known for hauling goods around in a red wagon to families who were facing hardship, and she often did so using the cover of night so as to avoid bringing shame to those she helped.

She would also deliver Sacred Heart pamphlets to the firehouses around Denver, providing spiritual encouragement for those men who were in the dangerous profession of being firefighters.

“She’s a model for me,” Lesiring said of Greeley. “We’re all called to be saints, and it just goes to show that an ordinary person can become extraordinary. For some of us, she’s already a saint.”

The next session of the diocesan phase of the canonization process will take place Feb. 21. Capuchin Friar Father Gene Emrisek will be called as a witness to testify for Greeley’s reputation of holiness. Father Emrisek founded the Julia Greeley Guild in 2011.

When the diocesan phase of the investigation into Greeley’s possible sainthood closes, the investigators will send a report to the Vatican counting their findings. The Pontifical Commission for the Causes of Saints will then decide whether or not to continue along with the process.

For more information, visit JuliaGreeley.org.

Intercessory Prayer

Heavenly Father, your servant Julia Greeley dedicated her life to honoring the Sacred Heart of your Son, and to the humble service of your children, especially the poor.

If it be in accordance with your holy will, please grant this favor I now ask through her intercession, ________.

I also ask, in the Name of Jesus, whose Sacred Heart filled Julia’s heart with love for all she met, that I may follow her example of humility and simplicity in loving you and my neighbor. Amen