Born sometime between 1833 and 1848 in Hannibal, Missouri, Julia Greeley was freed during the Civil War although we don’t know if she was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation or if her master set her free of his own accord. All we know of her parents is their first names, George and Cerilda. As for her own name, it is “most likely that Julia took the name Greeley from Horace Greeley, who endeared himself to many black people...by strongly urging Lincoln to emancipate the slaves.”
She had every right to be bitter and angry. An African American ex-slave who didn’t even know her birth year, she endured discrimination all her life. She suffered a lifetime of illiteracy and poverty. Yet, she responded to her life’s hardships with tireless charity and hidden acts of kindness.
Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap., of St. Francis Friary in Denver, writes a powerful historical documentary about Julia Greeley, “In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart.” It is the story of an old, one-eyed black woman who appeared to be homeless and dressed in shabby clothes. At the same time, the account is naturally interwoven with early Colorado history, including the establishment of Denver’s earliest Catholic churches and parishes, and the work of Colorado’s first three bishops, Machebeuf, Matz and Tihen. The 140-page volume is stuffed with such historical persons, places and events that are familiar to Colorado natives and students of the state’s history.
Yet, even a simple sequence of events in Greeley’s life isn’t simple at all. As with many heroic lives, the legends abound – and that’s the problem. So, about a year ago, Fr. Burkey launched a painstaking effort to separate fact from fiction. For instance, shortly after her death, the “Rocky Mountain News” reported that “Julia came to Colorado with the second Mrs. Gilpin.” As he does throughout the book, Fr. Burkey underlines that passage and notes that Julia “did not come to Denver with Mrs. Gilpin, and Mrs. Gilpin was not the governor’s second wife; he was her second husband.” This fact-checking is important to us as readers because, as we read Julia Greeley’s life, we want to see as accurate a history of the times as possible.
Julia brought herself to Denver between 1878 and 1880. That same year, she lived with and worked for the former territorial governor, William Gilpin and his wife, Julia. The marriage was not a happy one, and Julia Greeley was dragged into the affair during an acrimonious and highly publicized divorce trial.
The rich Colorado history Julia Greeley witnessed barely fits into the book. The Catholic Church in Colorado grew up in front of her. In 1879, St. Elizabeth’s Parish was established, and in 1887, it was staffed by Franciscan Friars. A year later, after Sacred Heart Church was founded and staffed by Jesuits, Julia was received into the Catholic Church by Fr. Charles Ferrari, S.J. On and off, Julia worked as cook or housekeeper for the Jesuits at Sacred Heart Church, and from the day she was baptized to the day she died, she attended Mass there.
Here’s where the historical narrative fades into the background, and a miracle begins. Shortly after her conversion, Julia joined the League of the Sacred Heart, an organization dedicated to prayer and charitable works. One of the basics of her own spirituality was to place all of the day’s activities into secret service of the Sacred Heart. Specifically and intentionally, Julia Greeley performed her numerous acts of charity covertly. Even though she earned only $15 a month, she gave away all but her rent money. When those funds ran out, she would beg for money or food to help the poor.
More than once, she was subject to scams. When asked why she still trusted people after such fraud, she replied that she would rather take the risk of being defrauded than to neglect even one poor person.
She often provided help to people who would be ashamed to accept help from “one-eyed Julia.” Local artist Isiah McGill depicts Julia Greeley’s secret charity in a scene painted for the book’s cover, capturing its title. A cabin stands in a dark, cold night with a woman holding a sack of potatoes, wondering who put it on her porch. Julia has placed it there but soon realizes that the potatoes might freeze. So, she sends a child to knock on the door and run. “But don’t dast say Old Julia sent ya.” Julia and the child are hiding behind the backyard fence. The fireman’s helmet on the child recalls Julia’s dedication to Denver’s firemen to whom she delivered literature about the Sacred Heart at every Denver station.
Julia Greeley died on First Friday, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, June 7, 1918 on her way to Mass.
Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M. Cap, and others who know Greeley’s story, hope that the recent publication of his historical documentary on her life will “make both her story and cause more widely known.”
Father Blaine Burkey's book, "In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart," is available locally at Gerkins, Erger, and the Tattered Cover bookstores. It is also for sale at the Cardinal Stafford Library and may be ordered at the Julia Greeley website: [email protected]
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.