Former Mo. slave’s remains entombed in Denver cathedral


The exhumed remains of a woman with ties to the Jefferson City diocese are at rest in Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

They are of Servant of God Julia Greeley.

Born into slavery in Hannibal in the 1800s, she became Catholic in Denver and came to be known as the Angel of Charity in the years leading up to her death on June 7, 1918.

Her remains were exhumed from Denver’s Mount Olivet Cemetery last May as part of the formal process for determining whether the Church should declare her a saint.

Placed inside a two-ton marble sarcophagus, she is the first person to be buried in the 107-year-old cathedral.

More than 500 people attended a pontifical Mass on June 7 to mark the 100th anniversary of her death.

It was the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, the same movable feast on which she had died a century earlier, a feast especially dear to her heart.

“She knew herself as a beloved daughter of the Father,” said Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, who presided at the Mass. “The fact that she was known as the Angel of Charity shows that she was rooted in that love, and in her love, Christ Himself was revealed.”

Joining the archbishop at the altar was Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, postulator for the cause of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the Church’s first black priest in the United States.

Like Miss Greeley, Fr. Tolton was born into slavery in northeastern Missouri, and his cause for being declared a saint was opened in 2010.

Also concelebrating the Mass were Father David Cockson from Louisville, Kentucky, and about a dozen other priests from the Denver archdiocese.

Deacon David Arling, one of the deacons assisting the archbishop, is local minister of Denver’s St. Elizabeth of Hungary Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, of which Miss Greeley was a member from 1901 until her death.

Leading the entrance procession were honor guards from the Knights of Columbus, the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver, and the Denver Fire Department.

“She served no matter what the cost,” Bishop Aquila stated in his homily. “She never sought out adulation, she never sought out appreciation, she never sought out power or recognition. She simply served.

“She had a missionary spirit,” he said. “She was not afraid to proclaim Christ, she was not afraid to invite others to come to know Jesus and His love for them.” 

At the offertory procession, two members of the firefighters honor guard accompanied choir members in bringing bread and wine to the altar in two red wagons, symbolic of the wagon with which Miss Greely carried gifts to Jesus in the poor.

Prior to Mass, members of the Julia Greeley Guild pulled four identical wagons around the cathedral grounds, distributing food and snacks to the poor and homeless of the area.

At the end of the Mass, David Uebbing, archdiocesan chancellor and vice-postulator of Miss Greeley’s cause, read the proclamation by Colorado Governor John Hickenhooper declaring June 2-9, 2018, to be Servant of God Julia Greeley Week.


From age to age

Miss Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, sometime between 1833 and 1848.

Sources indicate five different birth dates for her. When asked how old she was, she would say, “They never told me.”

She witnessed and endured some horrific cruelty. Her right eye was destroyed by a whip while a slave master was beating her mother.

After the Civil War, Miss Greeley received her freedom and became a housekeeper and nursemaid to the children of William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado.

Miss Greeley traveled with Mrs. Gilpin and the children by train from St. Louis to Denver.

She worked odd jobs around that city after emancipating herself from the Gilpins’ payroll.

She found her spiritual home at Sacred Heart parish in Denver and converted to Catholic Christianity in 1880.

Never knowing whether she had been baptized as an infant, she received conditional baptism — as in “just in case” — upon her initiation into the Church.


Tireless in charity

She became a daily communicant and in 1901 entered the Secular Franciscan Order, pledging to live the Gospel at home, at work, in her parish and in the world in keeping with the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi.

The priests at her parish found her to be a most fervent promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

That devotion filled her with passion to serve God by helping the poor and marginalized.

Despite her own poverty and long hours of housekeeping and taking care of children, she devoted much of her time to collecting food, clothing and other goods for the poor.

“Wearing a floppy hat, oversized shoes, and dabbing her bad eye with a handkerchief, Greeley was often seen pulling her red wagon of goods to deliver to the poor and homeless of the city,” Catholic News Agency/EWTN noted in a 2016 article.

She would often carry-out her ministry after dark, so as to avoid embarrassing the people she was helping.

After her death, her body lay in state in a Catholic church for five hours, while multitudes came to pay their respects.


“Part of God’s plan”

Archbishop Aquila opened a sainthood cause for Miss Greeley in December 2016.

Her bones were transferred to the cathedral basilica last June, after careful examination by an anthropologist.

Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez presided at a transfer ceremony last year on the 99th anniversary of Miss Greeley’s death.

He said she exemplified three qualities of holiness throughout her life: humility, perseverance and faith.

What wasn’t known, however, was that she suffered from arthritis — a fact revealed by the exhumation and examination of her bones.

“We know from the stories passed on to us that Julia Greeley was tireless in her charity and in spreading the faith,” Bishop Rodriguez explained. “What we didn’t know until the exhumation is that Julia suffered from arthritis in her hands, feet, back ... almost every joint that could have hurt, probably did. Nevertheless, she never stopped practicing and doing and showing love.”

Dr. Christine Pink, the forensic anthropologist responsible for the exhumation of Miss Greeley’s remains, confirmed that Miss Greeley did indeed suffer from arthritis.

“The finding of arthritis was special just given what we know about her walking to all the fire stations and doing what she did,” Dr. Pink said. “She likely was in pain, and joyful despite that.”

The bishop spoke of the hope that the ceremony represented — hope that because of Christ’s conquering of the grave, the dead will one day, too, be resurrected.

“Our ceremony today is just a very small confession that we believe in the resurrection of the body and in the communion of saints. This is why we are here in this place,” he said. “We are saying those bones will rise on the last day, and today, we are particularly united to Julia Greeley.”

After the ceremony and public viewing, her funerary box was screwed shut by a carpenter, sealed with gold wax and placed underneath the Sacred Heart statue in the side chapel to the west of the main altar.

The day had come sooner than expected for some.

“This is a great day. We never thought it would come so soon when we started to move things, but God certainly had His own plan,” said Capuchin Friar Father Blaine Burkey, whose book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley, is likely the most extensive volume compiled about Julia Greeley’s life.

Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley guild, was overjoyed to see the cathedral full of so many devoted to Greeley.

“Whether she gets to be a saint in Rome or not, does not matter to me, she’s already my saint,” Ms. Leisring said.


“Witness to grace”

Seven masonry workers spent six intense hours on May 30, bringing Julia’s sarcophagus into its position in the cathedral and placing inside it the funerary box containing bones.

The only ornamentation on the sarcophagus are bas relief crosses on the end panels matching a cross on Miss Greeley’s original tombstone; the shield of Archbishop Aquila on the top panel; and a specially-designed medallion of the Sacred Heart on the front panel.

The design of her original gravestone identifying “Beloved Julia Greeley” is reproduced on the front base cover.

“Her heart was formed by the Sacred Heart of Jesus, because she was open and receptive to that and put her faith in that,” said Archbishop Aquila. “Her life is a witness to grace, to the power of God and humility and the total gift of self.”


Much of the information in this article came from the June 25, 2018, edition of Lil’ Red Wagon, official newsletter of The Julia Greeley Guild (

Mr. Lambert is the managing editor for Denver Catholic (, which published parts of this article on June 9, 2017, and gave permission for them to be used here.