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Julia Greeley: Woman of virtue

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.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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