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

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.

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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

Roxanne King
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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