Julia Greeley: Woman of virtue

Archbishop Aquila

Hundreds of people were drawn to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7 for the transfer of Julia Greeley’s mortal remains, which were exhumed as a part of her cause for canonization. Few records about Julia exist, but her remains confirm what was passed on orally: Julia was a woman of remarkable perseverance and conviction who should inspire us all to pursue holiness.

During his sermon for the Transfer of Remains ceremony, Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez observed that it was not a bishop or a priest who was the first to be interred in the Cathedral, it was the Servant of God Julia Greeley – a black laywoman who earned a meager living with odd jobs and who devoted herself to serving the poor. Upon hearing this, the congregation broke into applause.

The people recognized that in honoring Julia in this way, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount were followed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Christ declared, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3).” Being poor in spirit means recognizing our complete dependence on God for everything, and this describes Julia perfectly. She drew her strength from her daily Communion and the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart for her.

Her devotion to the Sacred Heart drove Julia to walk to each of Denver’s 20 fire stations on foot every first Friday of the month. Her remains told us that she did this even though she suffered from arthritis in her feet, hands, back and neck. Julia did not let her aching back stop her from carrying a mattress down an alley to someone who needed its comfort.

Some people also recalled that Julia walked with a limp and this was clear from remains. An analysis of her bones shows that she had no cartilage in her right knee so that her bones ground together as she ambled down Denver’s alleys delivering food, medicines and clothes to the poor. She was a woman who lived the gift of fortitude, who was willing to put aside her own physical sufferings for the sake of others.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that for our sake Jesus “became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Julia was materially poor. Those who knew her said she earned $10-12 a month by cleaning and cooking – a life of manual labor that was confirmed by the features found on her leg and arm bones. But she didn’t allow her own poverty to restrain her generosity for others, even though she occasionally fell victim to fraudsters.

Julia Greeley also had other difficulties that would have prevented most people from bringing the Gospel to others. She could not see out of her right eye, which was blinded at a young age by a slave master’s errant whip, and she was short – about five feet tall. She was African American and a woman, both factors that would have placed her lower on the social ladder in the 1900s. And finally, she could neither read nor write.

Instead of making excuses, Julia answered Jesus’ call to tell others about his love, especially through promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart. All of this she did with a humble simplicity and a sense of humor. One woman who knew her, Eleanor Pavella Castellan, recalled a fitting example of this for Fr. Pacificus Kennedy in the 1970s.

“Julia was as simple as a little child, trusting in everyone, and forever a faithful member of the Catholic Church,” Mrs. Castellan stated. “She earned very little in those days, but would always share what she had with others. She had a keen sense of humor and could always laugh at herself when she found herself in a ridiculous situation — like the time she made a commotion among the children when she came into church with her skirt inside out. The nun quieted the kids, then scolded Julia. But all Julia said was, ‘Ah know, Sister, Ah know.’”

As each of us strives to pursue holiness, we should allow Julia Greeley’s selfless example to challenge us. Even though she was in constant pain and was poor, Julia did not make excuses but responded to hardship with kindness and generosity. I encourage everyone in the archdiocese to imitate her heroic example and to ask for her intercession for your spiritual and material needs. Servant of God, Julia Greeley, pray for us!

To learn more about the Servant of God Julia Greeley, visit: www.juliagreeley.org.

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

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.