Saintly former slave to be local model of mercy for Jubilee Year

Sacred image will be first to reveal full face of Julia Greeley

She was known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity.”

Former slave Julia Greeley had endured brutality; she lost an eye as a child to a whip while she clung to her mother who was being beaten by a slavemaster, and she suffered racism, which sentenced her to menial jobs and poverty. A Catholic convert and daily Communicant, Greeley transcended injustice through her faith and became known for astonishing works of charity despite her meager means. When she died at age 70-85—she didn’t know how old she was—Greeley was so beloved that her body lay in state for five hours as a constant stream of people from all walks of life paid their respect to this saintly woman.

Greeley has been selected as the local face of mercy for Catholics to model during this special jubilee Year of Mercy, which started last month and runs through Nov. 20. The Denver Archdiocese has commissioned a sacred image to be made of her that will be unveiled at the end of the month.

“She stood out because of how extraordinary she was,” said David Uebbing, chancellor for the archdiocese. “Even though she was only earning $10 to $12 a month cleaning and cooking, she was using it to help other people who were poor. That spoke volumes about the charitable heart she had. In addition, she had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was known for walking (monthly) to 20 different firehouses to give (felt) badges of the Sacred Heart and tracts to firemen. That brings to life the corporal and spiritual works of mercy this holy year is dedicated to.”

Born as a slave between 1833 and 1848 in Hannibal, Mo., Greeley arrived to Colorado in 1874, 11 years after slaves were freed. In 1878, she came to Denver with Julia Gilpin, a Catholic and wife of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin. Greeley converted to Catholicism in 1880 at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. A daily Mass attendee, she called the Eucharist her “breakfast.”

After leaving the Gilpins’ service, Greeley did odd jobs cooking, cleaning and caring for children and was a familiar sight on Denver streets in her humble clothing, floppy hat and oversized shoes, pulling a red wagon that was filled with items she bought, found or begged for and which she gave to the needy. She frequently delivered the goods—often to poor white families—under cover of night, to remain anonymous. She died on June 7, 1918, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Both Denver dailies and the Denver Catholic Register wrote long obituaries about her.

Over the years, many have expressed a desire to see Greeley canonized. Locally, a book about her life is in its second printing, and a guild and a women’s homeless shelter bear her name. Despite that, many have never heard of “Old Julia.”

“There is only one known photo of her,” Uebbing said, referring to a photograph that depicts Greeley holding a baby girl she sometimes cared for. “That’s the reason for commissioning the sacred image. It will raise awareness of her. It will include images of the things she did. We want to bring her to life today.”

Unfortunately, the lone photo of Greeley doesn’t clearly depict her face as her hat shadows her eyes. Iconographer Vivian Imbruglia of Rancho Cucamonga Calif., aims to change that.

“This is not a portrait,” Imbruglia said. “This will be different in that you will see her face. In the photo, you only [clearly] see her nose and mouth.”

The image is being written on wood covered by linen and will depict symbols pertinent to Greeley’s life: the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Eucharist, her red wagon, the Rocky Mountains, a child and a firehouse.

“My prayer,” Imbruglia said, “is that this image will tell a story for someone who doesn’t know her, as opposed to a portrait.”

Imbruglia had the sole photo of Greeley enlarged to look at as she works and, immersing herself in prayer, believes Greeley is helping her with the project.

“Her face has been slowly revealed to me,” the iconographer said. “I feel like she’s being unveiled before me.”

With just one good eye, Greeley often dabbed at the bad one, which oozed, with a handkerchief. The good woman wasn’t considered very attractive, however, she was known for exuding joy with an unforgettable smile.

“She’s coming out beautiful,” Imbruglia said, likening Greeley’s beauty to that of St. Mother Teresa. “I hope it honors her.”

“I was really happy when I heard the archdiocese was going to include (Greeley) in its Year of Mercy celebration,” said Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley Guild. “We had a saint walking the streets of Denver yet very few people know about her.”

Leisring and Capuchin Franciscan Father Blaine Burkey, author of In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley, will be featured in a short documentary the archdiocese is making about Greeley that will be shown at the Jan. 23 “Mercy Chose Me” conference on living the Year of Mercy. Imbruglia’s sacred image of Greeley will be unveiled at the conference, to be held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, and a panel will discuss her life.

“She was treated so miserably in many ways and yet she spent her whole life helping people,” Father Blaine said. “She practiced the works of mercy in a heroic degree.”

For More Information

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COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”