Capuchin priest publishes book on Julia Greeley
By Jean Torkelson
She was born a slave and lived as a servant, walking painfully, on a lame leg, from job to job throughout the neighborhoods of Denver’s lower downtown.
Yet when she died on June 7, 1918, Julia Greeley lay in state for several hours to accommodate the long lines of mourners, and she was accorded a solemn high Mass at Sacred Heart Church on Larimer Street.
What does one make of the mysterious disconnect between such a humble life and holy death?
It’s the timeline of a saint, say a growing number of Coloradans, who hope to spark her cause for canonization. In fact, interest in Julia’s life began shortly after her death, and in recent years has included expressions of support from no less than two of Denver’s archbishops, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford and the present archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Now, a major contribution toward promoting the cause of Julia Greeley is contained in a meticulously researched book, just published, by historical author and Denver-based Capuchin priest, Father Blaine Burkey, his community’s longtime director of communications. His book, and Julia’s cause, is being supported by a number of individuals and groups, especially the Secular Franciscan Order, to which Julia belonged.
“In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart,” is a handsome trove of photographs, contemporary accounts, and absorbing legal documents which Father Burkey expertly ferreted from 19th- and early 20th-century archives. The result is a comprehensive narrative which more than answers the promise of the subtitle: “Remembering the life and virtues of Denver’s Angel of Charity.”
Julia led a quiet, hidden life in downtown Denver as a cook, floor sweeper, scullery maid and informal children’s nanny. She took whatever work she could find, and was always dependent upon others for shelter. But she was also widely recognized for her virtue and heroic love of neighbor. She was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and a beloved parishioner at Sacred Heart Church.
Julia died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, possibly in her 80s. Born into slavery in Hannibal, Mo., she never knew her exact age. Yet she became a noted presence in Denver, even achieving some notoriety—and heartache—working as cook for the wife of Colorado’s former territorial governor William Gilpin.
Several years ago, Father Burkey, who has written several historical books on saints and early American western characters, happened to see an article on Julia.
“The story mentioned she was member of the Secular Franciscans,” Father Burkey said, “and I thought, ‘She was a member of our Franciscan family. I want to know more about this woman.’”
He began his research about a year ago and discovered that over the past century, the quiet household servant has had a surprising number of “hits” in Denver’s daily newspapers and in the Denver Catholic Register.
Among his fascinating finds was the 1887 transcript of the Gilpins’ tawdry divorce trial, in which the governor tried, unsuccessfully, to smear Julia’s name as a woman of ill repute. The book quotes extensively from the trial, and includes this poignant detail from Julia’s own testimony: Asked if she had ever slept at the Gilpin residence since leaving their employment, Julia replied: “Yes, once. I was out of a place and did not have any place to go and slept in the shed where the donkey was kept in.”
Over the years there have been a number of spontaneous attempts to promote Julia’s canonization. A century after her death, they seem to be gaining traction. Father Burkey hopes his book will help inspire more people to become “friends of Julia.”
The book may be purchased for $19.95 at Gerken’s Religious Supplies, John Erger Church Goods and other religious supply stores and bookstores. For more information, contact the Julia Greeley Guild at 303-558-6685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Certainly Julia’s “friend list” is already impressive. In one of the book’s endorsements Cardinal Stafford observes, “She stopped people in their tracks.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3215; www.twitter.com/DCRegister