Sep 20, 2012
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.