Saintly Denverite Julia Greeley featured in manuscript

While deftly flipping through the 120-page manuscript he authored, Father Blaine Burkey, O.F.M. Cap., pointed to the 20th-century photos and explained the virtues and life stories of the widely-considered saintly woman Julia Greeley.

By all appearances she was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things during her life as an ex-slave and Catholic convert who roamed the streets of Denver, Colo.

“She earned her living by scrubbing floors,” Father Burkey, 75, said about Greeley, an African American. “She turned around what little she had left over to help people.”

What she couldn’t pay for, the Capuchin priest added, she “went around and begged for help for other people.”

Since April, Father Burkey has dug through library archives, state records, historical society files and Denver Archdiocese records to compile information about this woman called “the colored angel of charity.”

His keen interest in her life is shared with a group of other Greeley advocates who formed a Julia Greeley Guild in August.

“We decided the guild would be a good way to inform the public about Julia Greeley,” said Mary Leisring, president of the guild and director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. “It was our way of informing the public that a person of her character walked the streets of Colorado.”

Other initiatives named after Greeley include a college scholarship given by the  ladies auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver, Leisring said, and an award presented by the Catholic organization Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), which is given to someone who exemplifies true feminism.

Behind the guild and Father Burkey’s manuscript—which in need of funding to be published—is the hope that this woman will one day be officially recognized by the Church.

“Hopefully, we’ll have some influence on persuading the future bishop to open a cause for sainthood,” Father Burkey said. “At that point, we’ll leave it in God’s hands.”

Father Burkey, who resides at St. Francis of Assisi Friary in Denver, believes something should be done to recognize this woman, “but nothing will happen until we get all the information in one place.”

His scavenger hunt for information began several years ago because of Greeley’s connection to his religious order the Franciscans, of which she was a third order secular. 

Little personal information is known of her and no personal writings exist as she was illiterate. However, scores of articles penned by journalists have surfaced, including about 100 articles from the Denver Catholic Register archives that reference her name, Father Burkey said.

The first articles appeared in the Register, the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post in 1918, after Greeley died at the approximate age of 85—Greeley herself said she didn’t know how old she was—on the feast of the Sacred Heart on June 7.

The articles describe a flow of people—poor and rich alike—who came to view her body that lay in a coffin for five hours at Loyola Chapel, now the Evangelist Temple Church of God in Christ, at 2536 Ogden St.

The Register article published two days after her funeral reads, “Highest Honor Ever Paid to Dead Laic Here Goes to Negress.”

Greeley’s funeral was held at Sacred Heart Church, 2760 Larimer St., where she sat in the front left pew daily. She was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge.

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Father Burkey said he began a more earnest search for facts about her life in April and discovered records of a court case when Greeley’s character was put into question. She was stuck in a divorce case that arose between her former employer Julie Gilpin, whom Greeley testified for, who was the wife of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin.

William Gilpin accused Greeley of being “a lewd and unprincipled woman that badly influenced his children,” which was one reason why he said he needed a divorce from Julie Gilpin. Greeley took the stand to defend her character and about six people testified in her favor, Father Burkey said.

“Moreover, when grilled by Mrs. Gilpin’s defense attorneys, Col. Gilpin was unable to justify his charge against Greeley,” Father Burkey said.

“This case isn’t spiritually revealing except these six to seven witnesses said she was totally reliable,” he continued. “That’s something in her favor that she remained such a magnanimous women herself and was helping other people despite the way she had been treated.”

William Gilpin’s testimony contradicts records and articles written about Greeley that spoke of her charity to the poorest of poor. She was often seen carrying firewood, clothes or food down alleyways to someone in need. She begged for dresses from wealthy women and restored them for working class girls so they would be able to attend church or go to a social gathering. She also passed out Catholic literature to firemen, especially leaflets about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which she became an apostle for after entering the Church in 1880, the same year she appeared on the U.S. Census for Denver.

Her charity and devotion extended to the point when she reportedly gave her own burial plot to a destitute man and participated in 40 hours of devotion, kneeling motionless and absorbed in adoration of the Eucharist.

Overall, Greeley stands as an example of how ordinary people can become saints, Leisring said.

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“When looking at her, (we see) she was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things,” Leisring said. “All of us have that same opportunity.”

Printed with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.

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