Julia Greeley was a familiar sight on the streets of Denver in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
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. She had a particularly special devotion to the Sacred Heart, and would deliver images and information about the icon to firefighters throughout Denver every month.
Her charitable work earned her the title of a "one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society" from one writer, and has made her the local model of mercy for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Born a slave in Hannibal, Missouri sometime between 1833 and 1848, Greeley endured some horrific treatment — once, a whip caught her right eye and destroyed it as a slave master beat Greeley’s mother.
One of many slaves freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Greeley’s work with the family of William Gilpin, Colorado’s first territorial governor, brought her to Denver in 1878.
After leaving the Gilpins' service, Greeley found odd jobs around the city, and came upon the Sacred Heart Parish of Denver, where she would convert to Catholicism in 1880. She was an enthusiastic parishioner, a daily communicant, and became an active member of the Secular Franciscan Order starting in 1901. The Jesuit priests at her parish recognized her as the most fervent promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Despite her own poverty, Greeley spent much of her time collecting food, clothing and other goods for the poor. She would often do her work at night, so as to avoid embarrassing the people she was assisting.
“She stood out because of how extraordinary she was,” David Uebbing, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Denver Catholic.
“Even though she was only earning $10 to $12 a month cleaning and cooking, she was using it to help other people who were poor,” he said.
“That spoke volumes about the charitable heart she had. In addition, she had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was known for walking (monthly) to 20 different firehouses to give (felt) badges of the Sacred Heart and tracts to firemen. That brings to life the corporal and spiritual works of mercy this holy year is dedicated to.”
Julia Greeley died on June 7, 1918 - the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Although her death came unexpectedly, she was able to receive last rites. It is estimated that she was around 80 years old, though because she was born into slavery, her exact age was never known.
After her death, her body lay in state in a Catholic parish for five hours, during which a constant stream of people came to pay their last respects to the well-known, well-loved woman.
Although only one known photograph exists of Greeley, holding a child she cared for at the time, the Archdiocese of Denver has commissioned an icon be made of her.
Iconographer Vivian Imbruglia of California has been chosen to write the image on wood covered in linen, which will include symbols of her life such as the Rocky Mountains, her red wagon, a child, a firehouse and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
A documentary about Greeley, based on the book In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley, was also produced by the Archdiocese of Denver for the year of Mercy.
Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley Guild, told Denver Catholic that she was happy about the recognition Greeley was receiving during the Year of Mercy.
“We had a saint walking the streets of Denver, yet very few people know about her.”