Homegrown holiness – American woman born into slavery on path to sainthood

Julia Greeley was born as a slave, emancipated, and went on to become a beloved ‘Angel of Charity’ in Denver. Her cause for canonization is now open, and her body rests in Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Her legacy is one of self-sacrifice and generosity, and Fr. Albert Haase, Franciscan priest and author, gladly shared her story with listeners of The Inner Life®.

Julia Greeley
This 1916 photo provided by the Archdiocese of Denver shows Julia Greeley with Marjorie Ann Urquhart

“We have no idea when she was born—sometime between 1833 and 1848. We really aren’t sure, but we know she was born in Hannibal, Missouri as a slave. And one day, one of her slave owners is beating her mother and little Julia goes running trying to protect her mother, and the whip catches her right eye. And so Julie would spend all her life after that with only one eye,” said Fr. Albert.

“She was freed in [1865] … and she makes her way to Colorado, where she becomes the nanny for the first territorial governor. While she’s in Denver, she converts to Catholicism, she becomes a daily communicant, and … she becomes a Secular Franciscan. She’s baptized at the Jesuit church of the Sacred Heart and for some strange reason, she develops this great love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

“But this is what I absolutely love about her—she only makes about $10-12 a month and she uses her money to buy things that poor people need,” remarked Fr. Albert. “She herself is poor, but she spends her $10-12 monthly allowance on items needed, she puts them in a little red wagon, and then under cover of darkness every night, she goes through the back alleys of Denver giving away things that people need. And she does it under cover of night because she doesn’t want the white people she helps to be embarrassed that they have been helped by a former slave.”

“There is an eyewitness account that states: two people one night saw her carrying a mattress on her back that she was bringing to a family because she heard that their two children didn’t have a bed. Julia herself did not have a bed! She oftentimes slept outside but she carries this mattress on her back to this family. Now, why is this little detail interesting? Because last year, when they exhumed her body from the grave to prepare it to be placed in the cathedral in downtown Denver, forensic experts look at her bones and they say she is riddled with arthritis,” explained Fr. Albert. “The physical pain she must have experienced carrying that mattress on her back is just fascinating!”

Holiness is about sacrificial love, says Fr. Albert. “What I love about Julia Greeley is she shows me in a very vivid way just how accessible holiness is. It is simply about doing small little acts of love.”

Lindsey is a wife, mother, and contributing author at Relevant Radio. She holds a degree in Journalism and Advertising from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lindsey enjoys writing, baking, and liturgical living with her young family.