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.
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.
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.
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.
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.