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Mass to honor 141st anniversary of Servant of God Julia Greeley’s baptism

Over the years, those devoted to Denver’s “Angel of Charity” Julia Greeley have often marked her 1918 death on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a Mass. This year, for the first time, the date of her baptism will also be observed with a Mass.

Set for 7 p.m. June 26 at Sacred Heart Church, 2780 Larimer St., where the former slave, now Servant of God was baptized and worshiped, all are welcome to attend. The liturgy is being organized by the parish and the Julia Greeley Guild, which exists to foster her canonization cause.

“Her whole faith life was with that parish,” said Capuchin Father Blaine Burkey, whose book In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart documents her life and works. “The Julia Greeley Guild thought we should keep a connection with the parish. We have no idea what Julia’s birthday was, she didn’t either. But the anniversary of her baptism is more important, it’s when she was reborn into the freedom of Christ’s kingdom.” 

Born into slavery between 1833 and 1848 in Hannibal, Mo., Greeley was freed in 1865 by Missouri’s Emancipation Proclamation Act. Even so, a blinded, weeping eye from the strike of a whip remained a lasting mark of her bondage. 

She made her way to Denver in 1878, where she first worked as a domestic for Julia Gilpin, a Catholic and wife of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin. She credited her conversion to Catholicism on June 26, 1880, to Mrs. Gilpin. Thereafter, she became a daily communicant. 

Her parish priests dubbed her “the most zealous Apostle of the Sacred Heart,” because every month she trudged — despite widespread arthritis — to all 20 of the city’s fire stations to hand out Sacred Heart cloth badges and prayer pamphlets to the firemen. Although illiterate, Greeley knew the leaflets she called “tickets to heaven!” aimed to save souls. 

Julia Greeley had a fervent devotion to the Sacred Heart, and was a parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish in Denver, where she was baptized and received daily communion.

Leaving the Gilpins’ service in 1883, Greeley eked out a living cooking, cleaning and caring for children. Despite her own poverty, she carried out remarkable works of charity. She was known for pulling a red wagon through Denver streets filled with necessities she bought or begged for the poor. She often delivered these items at night so as not to embarrass the recipients, particularly if they were white.

That Greeley fell ill on the way to Mass on June 7, 1918, feast of the Sacred Heart, and died later that day after receiving last rites seemed providential. Straightaway, people spoke of hopes to see her canonized. 

‘A saint for our time’

In 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver opened her cause for canonization, enabling her to be called Servant of God. In 2017, her remains were transferred from Mount Olivet Cemetery to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  

“Julia imaged and reflected the Sacred Heart through her own heart and her own love,” said Father Joseph Lajoie, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish. “What is the Christian response to people who mistreat you? It is to treat them like their life matters, even if they don’t treat you like your life matters.”

Greeley lived that, the priest said. Despite the racism, brutality and poverty she experienced, motivated by love for Christ and love for neighbor, she evangelized and loved anyway.

“It makes sense that she was so dedicated to the Sacred Heart because the Sacred Heart is a heart that suffers and is pierced,” said Father Lajoie, who will celebrate Greeley’s baptism anniversary Mass. 

“It struck me that Juneteenth [federal holiday marking the emancipation of slaves] falls between her baptism and her death, and it all happens in the month of the Sacred Heart,” he continued. “I see so much of her life united by the theme of the Sacred Heart. Given everything that happened last summer, she is a saint for our time and place in America right now.” 

Next steps to sainthood

David Uebbing, archdiocesan chancellor and vice-postulator of Greeley’s cause, said the Vatican recently affirmed that the diocesan phase of her cause was done correctly. Now the Roman phase of the process begins with the writing of what is called the positio

“The positio is the official biography of the candidate,” Uebbing said.

The positio will summarize the evidence the archdiocese submitted about Greeley’s life and works. Its purpose is to prove her heroic virtue. When completed, it will be examined by the Congregation for Causes of Saints. If it passes muster, the candidate is permitted to be called “Venerable.” 

For a candidate to move from venerable status to beatification (when the person may be called “Blessed”), a miracle attributed to their intercession is necessary. A second miracle is required for canonization. Once canonized, the person receives the title “Saint” and can be venerated by the universal Church.

Notice of favors and miracles attributed to the intercession of Greeley are welcomed by the archdiocese and the guild. Many have already been received.

Julia Greeley’s remains are entombed at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and can be visited. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“We don’t know if they are miracles,” Uebbing cautioned, adding that alleged miracles are subject to rigorous examination and must include thorough medical documentation that clearly rule out medical intervention or natural process as a cause of healing.

In one case, during a mother’s delivery, hydrops (life-threatening swelling) caused the baby to get stuck in the birth canal long enough to cause oxygen deprivation. The parents were told they would see some brain damage in their newborn. The parents prayed and placed a prayer card with a third-class relic of Greeley inside the child’s incubator while she underwent a three-day cooling treatment to protect her brain. The father also touched the relic to the child. An MRI done some 10 days later showed no evidence of brain damage. The child’s hydrops continued to disappear and no cause for the swelling was ever discovered. Healed, the child went home at four weeks and has no developmental issues.

“The family believes it was the miraculous intervention of Julia,” Uebbing said. 

The Church requires miracles as proof the candidate is in heaven and can intercede with God for others.

“The Scripture says, ‘God hears the prayers of the just,’” Uebbing said, paraphrasing Proverbs 15:29. 

At the recent June 7 Mass marking the 103rd anniversary of Greeley’s death and held at the Cathedral Basilica, where she is the only person entombed, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez alluded to the canonization process, which can take years.

“I don’t know how much longer we will wait to hear the solemn proclamation of Julia’s canonization, but today Julia Greeley tells us that holiness is real, that holiness is among us, that holiness is always present, that God’s love makes saints,” he said. “And with her life, she reminds us that each one of us is called to be a saint.”

Books about Greeley’s life will be available for sale following the June 26 Mass. They include the third edition of In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart, which was just published this month.

Julia’s Canoe

If you have an urgent petition, either for yourself or another, the Julia Greeley Guild invites you to consider putting it in Julia’s canoe. Do so by sending a brief report of the serious need to JuliasCanoe@gmail.com. The intention will be forwarded to the Guild’s Julia’sCanoe Prayer Circle: members and friends of the Guild who have committed themselves to praying along with Julia for various intentions in her canoe. In return, the Guild asks that you notify it in writing, at the address below, of any favors received through Julia’s intercession. If you do not have an email account, send your intention to:
Julia’sCanoe, c/o Julia Greeley Guild
1535 N. Logan St.
Denver CO 80203-1913.

Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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