From slavery to a tomb fit for a dignitary

How Julia Greeley's magnificent tomb came from Carrara, Italy to Denver's Cathedral

David Uebbing

The year was 1883 and Colorado was hit with an economic recession that left thousands of people jobless. Silver miners were hit particularly hard and Denver was flooded with people seeking help. It was during this time that a former slave, Julia Greeley, was moved to beg for medicine, food, clothes and other necessities to quietly deliver to the poor at night.

Julia Greeley

When she passed away in 1918, the extent of her charity became clear as people from all classes filed by her coffin for five hours. As people recalled her life, it was clear that many thought she might be a saint.

In her humility, Julia never sought the limelight. She was a strong, good-hearted woman of deep faith. As word of her faith-filled life of charity spread in the years after her death, stories have come in from people all over the United States and beyond who have been inspired by her example. These consistent testimonies led Archbishop Samuel Aquila to open her Cause for Canonization in December 2016, which initiated an official investigation into her life and virtues.

Today, June 7, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Julia’s death, and to celebrate that occasion, Governor John Hickenlooper has declared June 3-9, 2018 “Julia Greeley Week” for the state of Colorado.

This statewide declaration is not the only recognition being given to Julia, though. Moved by her faithful witness despite the persecution and hardships she suffered, the archdiocese and supporters of Julia’s cause commissioned a tomb for her remains.

The tomb was designed in Colorado and the raw materials were excavated from the world-famous marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, which is best known for producing works of art like Michelangelo’s David. Besides serving as a fitting medium for Julia, Carrara marble was selected to match the interior of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, where her remains are permanently interred.

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From the drawing board to the quarry


In the process of designing the final resting place for Julia, it wasn’t a given that her tomb would be made from marble. The archdiocese considered constructing it out of wood and finishing it to look like marble to match the cathedral’s interior, but in the end, the desire to build something that would stand the test of time, the rigors of being in a downtown setting, and honor Julia in a fitting way led to choosing the Carrara marble.

The tomb, or sarcophagus as it is formally known, contains several design elements that are connected to Julia Greeley. The most prominent is the circular Sacred Heart of Jesus that is on the front of the tomb. This was chosen because of Julia’s strong devotion to the Sacred Heart, including her monthly treks on foot to every Denver fire station to hand out pamphlets from the Sacred Heart League encouraging the firemen, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to spiritually prepare themselves for the perils of their job by cultivating a devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Heart. Fittingly, Julia passed on to eternal life on the Feast of the Sacred Heart and also regularly attended Sacred Heart Parish in Denver’s Curtis Park neighborhood.

The side walls of the tomb were engraved with a cross that has rays of light emanating from it, a design that was present on Julia’s tombstone. Finally, Archbishop Aquila’s episcopal crest is displayed on the lid of the tomb, since Julia’s cause for canonization was opened during his time as Archbishop of Denver.

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Artistry in the details


The process of turning raw marble chunks weighing several tons into the beautiful final product is fascinating. From the mountains surrounding the small Italian town of Carrara, quarry workers carefully and expertly extract the treasured marble and use their craftsmanship to produce works of art. The stone used to create Julia’s tomb surprised the sculptors with its quality and minimal blemishes.

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Over the sea and into the Cathedral


Bringing Julia Greeley’s tomb from Italy to Denver involved a complicated operation that included crating, flying the pieces over, trucking them to the Cathedral and then carefully moving the 1.5-ton tomb into its final location using a system of ramps, scaffolding and pulleys.

Thankfully, on the morning of May 30, everything went smoothly as the team placed this fitting resting place for Julia’s remains in the front left side of the Cathedral, next to the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The public is invited to a Mass this evening at 5:30 p.m. in the Cathedral to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Julia’s death and to witness the blessing of the new tomb.

To learn more about Julia Greeley, Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” visit juliagreeley.org.

COMING UP: June 7 marks 100 years since Julia Greeley’s death

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June 7 marks 100 years since Julia Greeley’s death

Archbishop to celebrate special Mass honoring the life of Denver’s 'Angel of Charity’

Aaron Lambert

“Is she a saint?”

File photo

So read the headline on the cover of the April 15, 1998 issue of the Denver Catholic Register, coupled with a picture of Julia Greeley. Little did the staff of the paper at the time know that 20 years later, her life would be actively scrutinized to answer that question.

Julia Greeley’s Cause for Canonization was opened Dec. 18, 2016 and she is now called a “Servant of God.” While a cause can typically take years to complete, there’s still plenty of reasons to reflect upon the life of this inspiring woman and look to the example of holiness she set during her time on earth.

June 7 will be a day to do just that, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Julia Greeley. Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila will celebrate a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to honor the life of Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” as she came to be known, and all are invited to partake in the celebration. What’s more is that the governor’s office will issue an official proclamation declaring the week of June 3 – 9 be recognized as “Julia Greeley Week.”

Click here to watch a livestream of the Mass on June 7.

As part of the festivities, Denver firefighters will provide an honor guard in recognition of Greeley’s own devotion to the Sacred Heart and her steadfast dedication to handing out Sacred Heart pamphlets to Denver fire stations.

Little is known about Julia Greeley and her life, but over the years, pieces of the puzzle have begun to come together. Capuchin Friar Father Blaine Burkey became fascinated with Greeley some years ago and compiled the most comprehensive volume on her life to date, entitled In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley. 

Greeley earned a reputation as being a woman of charity as she walked the streets of Denver at night, hauling around food, clothes and other charitable goods in a little red wagon to hand out to those in need. As part of the canonization process, her bones were exhumed in November of last year and showed that she suffered from severe arthritis, meaning this task was likely a painful one for her. Nonetheless, she persisted through the pain and still found immense joy in serving others.

The Julia Greeley Guild is working hard to raise money to fund the expenses for Julia’s cause. Details on how to help contribute to the cause will be offered at the June 7 Mass, and the guild has several fundraisers planned, including one on June 10. The guild is also asking that anyone who had a devotion to Julia Greeley prior to their formation in 2011 send in a testimonial describing their long-standing devotion to her. These testimonies could help to move her cause along.

Monsignor Matthew Smith, founding editor of the Denver Catholic Register, wrote of Greeley in her 1918 obituary, “Her life reads like that of a canonized saint.” With prayer, grace and a commitment by the faithful to keeping Greeley’s memory alive, Msgr. Smith might not have been far off. Julia Greeley, pray for us!

Julia Greeley 100th anniversary Mass
Thursday, June 7, 5:30 p.m.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

Julia Greeley Fundraiser

Sunday, June 10
Trattoria Stella, 3201 E. Colfax Ave.
5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

10% of the proceeds from the restaurant will go toward Julia Greeley’s cause