‘Julia’s canoe’ fills with prayer intentions

Testimonies of miraculous intercession by Julia Greeley could help move her cause for canonization forward

Moira Cullings

Julia Greeley’s selfless life has captured the attention of Catholics around the world.

Many believe the former slave and now Servant of God who spent her life serving others is answering their prayers and providing miracles for themselves and their loved ones.

“It really grounds me in the sense that she should be a saint,” said Mary Leisring, Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry and President of the Julia Greeley Guild. “Hopefully Rome sees that as well.”

The next step in Julia’s cause for canonization would be for her to become venerable, then after one miracle to become blessed and after one more to become a saint.

The Julia Greeley Guild, which is currently made up of 140 people, knows of 849 “friends of Julia” who have written in seeking relics and additional information about Julia. The Guild also receives prayer intentions, which it prays for through her intercession.

“I’m blessed in a lot of ways to be able to be the president of the guild and read all the things that are happening for her and by her and in her,” said Leisring.

The guild has received several testimonies from people who believe their prayers through Julia’s intercession have been answered. Those testimonies could become crucial if Julia makes it to the venerable phase.

It would be no surprise if Julia plays a part in answering the prayers of those who seek her help — Julia once responded to a local grocery and café employee’s request for prayers with, “Mary, I’ll put you in a canoe with a lot of others I pray for. …”

“She used that metaphor to tell people that she would pray for them,” said Leisring.

The guild accepts prayers through a virtual canoe via email but hopes to obtain a real canoe, place it in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception where Julia’s body is interred, and allow visitors to put their prayer intentions inside it.

Those who have already added their intentions to Julia’s canoe and expressed interest in her life give Leisring hope that the cause will continue to move forward.

“Her life story is such a powerful story,” she said.

Leisring believes after Julia lost her eye when a slave master caught it with his whip, “somehow the Holy Spirit and the Lord touched Julia and guided her and graced her to be able to treat people and serve the poor, serve firemen, anybody she met.

“They didn’t have to be Catholic,” she added, “she was always just a giving person.”

Leisring hopes Julia’s selfless service continues to inspire others to strive for holiness.

“Here’s a person that I really believe has been graced by God to do the things she did in the era that she did them,” said Leisring. “It shows that ordinary people can become extraordinary.”

If you have an urgent petition, send a brief report of it to juliascanoe@gmail.com or by mail to Julia Greeley Guild, 1535 N. Logan St., Denver CO 80203. Visit juliagreeley.org for more information or if you are interested  in joining the Julia Greeley Guild.

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.