Annunciation fifth graders write, illustrate children’s book about Julia Greeley

Moira Cullings

When members of the Julia Greeley Guild visited the fifth-grade class at Annunciation Catholic School in Denver, they mentioned their hope of someone writing a children’s book about Julia.

“They asked, ‘Do you know anyone who would want to write a children’s book?’” said fifth-grade teacher Maggie Ellis. “I said, ‘Well, we can.’

“My class is very artistic and they’re very creative,” she said.

From October 2018 until February 2019, Ellis’s class wrote and illustrated a hardcover children’s book about Julia’s life, called Julia Greeley: Denver’s Angel of Charity. They presented a copy to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the St. John Paul II Center May 31.

“It gives me great joy to see their interest in Julia Greeley because she is such a great example of a very simple, humble woman who lived the Gospel and had a deep love for Jesus Christ, who lived her life as a true authentic disciple,” said the archbishop.

The fifth-grade class at Annunciation Catholic School presented Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila a children’s book they wrote and illustrated about Julia Greeley. Photo by Moira Cullings

“And it really helps the children see that it is possible for them, too, to live our faith in Christ.”

For Mary Leisring, Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry and President of the Julia Greeley Guild, the students’ achievement is moving.

“It almost takes your breath away because here’s a group of fifth graders that are able to get it, about all the things that [Julia] did, what she represented and everything,” she said.

“And then to publish a book with photographs that they themselves drew — something like this is just God sent.”

Julieta Ochoa is a member of the class who served with a fellow classmate as project manager, designed the book cover and helped with another picture inside the book, as well as one of the paragraphs.

“It was really special to see that my drawing was on the cover,” she said.

Archbishop Aquila was inspired by the students’ efforts to share with other young people the life of Julia Greeley, who is on her way to sainthood. Photo by Moira Cullings

Throughout the project, Ochoa was most inspired by Julia’s actions in the midst of her suffering.

“She had arthritis through all her bones, yet she managed to go up and down the streets and give people things even though it probably hurt a lot,” she said.

Ellis hopes the book can inspire even more children the way it did her students.

“I think they were so amazed about how she’s this slave who started with nothing, started with so much pain and trauma, and grew up to be someone who, [although] the pain wasn’t washed away, was able to use her life in service to others,” said Ellis.

“I just feel really proud of them and really hopeful that they can see there is someone who experienced great pain who did something incredible with their life, and they can do that, too.”

If you are interesting in purchasing a copy of Julia Greeley: Denver’s Angel of Charity, email Maggie Ellis at maggie.ellis@annunciationk8.org.

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.