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April 15, 2009
Denver’s saintly woman: Julia Greeley
By Pam Pedler
The whip snapped, taking the 3-year-old’s vision from one eye, but her compassion for others remained intact.
Julia Greeley grew up partially blinded and without knowing her surname or birth date; but these voids created opportunities that she gracefully filled while serving others. It was as if the lifetime of the weeping discharges from her disfigured eye, washed hatred and self-interest from her body.
She quite literally followed Christ’s words, “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps” (Mk 8:34). Like Christ, Julia began her life in poverty and even endured a scourging despite her innocence. Born into slavery in Hannibal, Mo., it is said that her mother stayed in from the fields once with her sick young daughter. This displeased the boss who cracked his whip, wounding the unlikely target, Julia. She grew up with the nickname “One-eyed Julia.”
Julia was about 25 when she came West from St. Louis in 1874, shortly after the marriage of Julia Dickerson to William Gilpin, first governor of the Colorado Territory. One-eyed Julia traveled to Denver by train as a free woman. She was a nanny for the four children of the newly remarried widow.
What made Julia come to be revered as saintly? The poor and needy always came first with her. In a letter from the Denver Archdiocese Archives, Sister Irene Lally recalled: “Seeing Black Julia many times in the church praying. She went out on the street with gunny sacks filled with wood, coal, clothes and food and medicine and would make her rounds to the desperately poor for whom no one else provided.” Julia helped the poor with her earnings of about $10 a month, and gave to a destitute man her own burial plot which Mrs. Gilpin had left her.
She literally clothed the needy and restored women’s dignity in a unique way: she begged wealthy women to donate their dresses and then she restored them for underpaid working-class girls. With acceptable clothes, the young women could attend church or go to a dance in search of a suitor, avoiding shame. Julia also consoled the sorrowful; after washing floors at a new job, she heard a woman’s story of the death of her only son 13 years earlier. The doctors had since declared the woman infertile. Julia assured her new employer, “You’re gonna have a bootiful lil’ girl chile!” A daughter, Marjorie Ann Urquhart was born Sept. 11, 1915. Julia cared for this child daily. The only known picture of Julia is of her holding this infant girl.
Julia’s difficult cross of racism reappeared during a later employ. One young girl sang an offensive tune while Julia rocked the girl’s infant sibling. The songster grew up and recalled that Julia looked at her sadly and said, “Chile, who ever taught you anything like that?” The little girl lied and said that her mother had.
One parishioner at Sacred Heart Church recalled another humiliating scourge. Some rich parishioners objected to Julia being present at the altar rail during the high Mass, wearing her hand-me-down worn clothing and oversized shoes. Father Edward Barry refused to buckle to the elite’s request to ask Julia to refrain from going to the Communion rail.
Julia adored the holy Eucharist. Discalced Carmelite Sister Celine described in another letter from archdiocesan archives that during her own childhood she witnessed Julia, “Many a time kneeling motionless, with perfect posture, absorbed in adoration of the holy Eucharist.” Julia also traveled from one Forty Hours Devotion of the Eucharist, to another.
Julia’s devotion to Christ was unswerving. Not only was she a fasting, daily communicant, but when she was offered breakfast in the rectory kitchen by the priests she would say, “Holy Communion is my brekfus.”
She had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and walked a monthly pilgrimage to all the firehouses in Denver distributing Sacred Heart prayer leaflets. It was estimated that she walked 22 miles a month on this mission.
Julia was described by Sister Celine as “everybody’s aunt” who supplied, “Help of any kind, wherever, whenever, required, tirelessly, late, or early, in heat, or bitter cold.” Many people from her day mentioned Julia’s illuminating smile, melodious voice and sense of humor as illustrated by Julia calling herself, “A dark spot in a bowl of cream.”
She was seen traveling in back alleys carrying a mattress or bundle of clothing on her back, delivering it to someone in need. The stories of her endless and simple charity are numerous. She literally followed Christ’s teaching when he was asked which was the first of all commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… .You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:29-31).
Julia obeyed Jesus through a heroic outpouring of herself. She collapsed on the way to church on June 7, 1918—the feast of the Sacred Heart. A multitude of rich and poor citizens streamed past her coffin paying their respects as Julia laid in state at Sacred Heart Church: an honor given to no other lay person in Denver, reported the September 1943 Colorado Magazine.
There is a reported miraculous cancer healing attributed to Julia’s intercession, which occurred in August 1941 (Friar magazine, June 1979). Later, when Julia’s body was moved at Mount Olivet Cemetery, it was said to be incorrupt, another saint-like quality.