Walking from St. Louis to Denver, pilgrim spreads word about holy woman Julia Greeley

Faithful invited to hike last few miles with Ann Sieben to Greeley’s tomb on Holy Saturday

On Ash Wednesday mendicant pilgrim Ann Sieben began walking from St. Louis, Mo., to Denver, traveling to sites where ex-slave Julia Greeley worked as a domestic in the 1800s, to raise awareness of Greeley’s canonization cause.

Set to arrive in Denver on Holy Saturday, all are invited to walk the last 5 or 10 miles with Sieben to her pilgrimage destination: the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which houses Greeley’s tomb and is where Sieben will celebrate the end of her Lenten journey by attending the Easter Vigil.

“It’s the rally to the finale,” Sieben, 55, cheerfully told the Denver Catholic by phone from Sabetha, Kan., March 22. “I’ll be walking in to Denver and I welcome people to come walk the last few miles with me.”

Pilgrims may join Sieben at 11 a.m. April 20 at the South Platte River Trailhead (East 88th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, Thornton) for a 10-mile trek, or at 1:30 p.m. at Northside Park (Franklin Street and 51st Avenue, Denver) to hike the last 5 miles.

Father Ron Cattany, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica, where Sieben worships the few months of the year that she is not on pilgrimage, will offer a blessing to those gathered at the South Platte River Trailhead.

“The thing that’s extraordinary about what Ann does as a pilgrim,” Father Cattany said, “is to take a practice of more than a thousand years ago and bring it to modern times to show us how pilgrimage can help us grow in faith, in evangelization and in our own spiritual journey.”

Sieben, who is also known as “Winter Pilgrim,” is a consecrated laywoman with the Society of Servant Pilgrims, which she founded with the approval of the Denver Archdiocese. The SSP, which is recognized by the Catholic Church as an Association of the Christian Faithful, strives to encourage, support and engage people in pilgrimage.

Having renounced material possessions, on her travels Sieben carries a backpack with a few necessities and her pilgrim credentials, but no money or valuables. A former nuclear engineer, since becoming a dedicated pilgrim in 2007 Sieben has walked more than 40,000 miles across 54 countries.

“But pilgrimage is not about the miles covered or the number of countries visited,” Sieben said. “It’s about the people.”

The mission of a servant pilgrim, she said, is to carry out Jesus’ directive to love God above all things and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self by walking village to village through the world to meet others and request hospitality, thereby building mutual trust and laying a foundation for peace.

“We serve the world,” Sieben said. “[Pilgrimage is] a demonstration of faith … in God and in people. In 12 years I have never not found a place to sleep. I’ve never felt afraid for my life. People are good. And I’m persistent!”

Sieben started her current pilgrimage with Mass and reception of ashes March 6 at St. Louis Abbey, where Benedictine monks sent her off on her 1,300-mile journey with a blessing. Her plan was to travel first to Hannibal, Mo., birthplace of Servant of God Julia Greeley, then through Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming before arriving to Denver. Along the way, Sieben asks those she encounters for food, water and shelter, invoking the biblical promise to ask and receive, to seek and find, and to knock and have the door opened (Mt 7:7).

“I walk on dirt roads, not highways. I don’t carry much water, so I’ll walk to a house and say, ‘I’m a pilgrim. May I have some water please?’” Sieben explained. “Many people know the spiritual significance of offering a pilgrim water. In the Gospel of Matthew [10:42; Mk 9:41] it says by even offering a glass of water you will find your reward in heaven.”

Recently, Catholics, Methodists and Baptists have sheltered Sieben in homes, fellowship halls and churches.

“God bless the Protestants, they almost always have padded pews,” Sieben said by phone from Elwood, Neb., April 2. “It makes for a more comfortable [makeshift bed].”

Wherever Sieben goes, peace seems to follow. Seven years ago, soldiers in Libya paused their gunfire to allow the self-identified “pilgrim on the way to the Holy Land” safe passage through a town. Sieben had a similar experience six years ago in Mexico when she encountered heavily armed “narcos” in the desert.

“When I said I was a pilgrim going to Guadalupe [Shrine], some put their weapons down so they could cross themselves, then said, ‘How can we help?’” she recalled. “I had an intenciones booklet and they wrote prayer intentions. I can’t say they had conversions and signed up to be altar boys, but in that moment they could have shot me dead and left me, but they didn’t. They let me go.”

One of Sieben’s aims on her Lenten pilgrimage is to talk to those she meets about Greeley’s heroic virtue and invite them to entrust prayer intentions to her. When she arrives in Denver, she will place those intentions at Greeley’s tomb. Should one result in a miracle, it could lead to Greeley’s canonization.

“For nearly everyone [I meet], it’s their first introduction to Julia and her holy life,” Sieben said. “I emphasize why she’s so inspiring to me: she was illiterate and dirt poor yet changed the world for so many people through her charity—and she was just one person.”

Greeley, who worked as a domestic primarily in Colorado but also in other states and converted to Catholicism at Denver’s Sacred Heart Church in 1880, became known as the city’s “Angel of Charity” for her efforts collecting food, fuel and clothing for the needy, which she often delivered secretly at night. A daily communicant and a Third Order Franciscan, Greeley had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Every month, despite rampant rheumatoid arthritis, she would walk miles to Denver’s 20 fire stations to hand out Sacred Heart prayer pamphlets, which she called “tickets to heaven,” to firefighters.

Greeley died at age 70-85 in Denver (her birthdate is unknown), her home the last 44 years of her life, on what was then the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1918.  She is the first person the Archdiocese of Denver has proposed for canonization and the only person entombed at the Cathedral Basilica.

“Our goal is for Julia Greeley to become a saint,” Father Cattany said. “Ann is taking Julia’s story to the nine dioceses she’s passing through, which increases the opportunity for Julia to be an intercessor for people. It’s an extraordinary type of evangelization.”



Society of Servant Pilgrims: societyofservantpilgrims.com

Julia Greeley Guild: juliagreeley.org

Featured image by Lisa Johnston | St. Louis Review

COMING UP: From slavery to a tomb fit for a dignitary

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From slavery to a tomb fit for a dignitary

How Julia Greeley's magnificent tomb came from Carrara, Italy to Denver's Cathedral

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.

Julia Greeley

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.