Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

This image of Julia Greeley, a former enslaved woman who lived in Colorado, was created by iconographer Vivian Imbruglia, who was commissioned to do the painting by the Archdiocese of Denver. Greeley’s cause for canonization was forwarded by the Archdiocese of Denver and accepted in 2016. (CNS photo/iconographer Vivian Imbruglia, courtesy Archdiocese of Denver)

Black Americans on the road to sainthood: Servant of God Julia Greeley


As we enter into the month of December and the season of celebrating the gift of salvation and the tradition of giving in the spirit of Our Lord, it seems fitting to begin our journey with “Black Americans on the road to sainthood” with Servant of God Julia Greeley. Many will not recognize the name of this holy woman whose cause for canonization was forwarded by the Archdiocese of Denver and accepted in 2016.

Known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity,” Julia Greeley was born into slavery at Hannibal, Mo. sometime between 1833 and 1848. She suffered the loss of one eye and debilitating physical injuries from slave masters. Emancipated by Missouri in 1865, Julia traveled to Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado working as a housekeeper, cook and a nanny.

For many years, she was a familiar sight on Denver’s streets wearing her signature floppy black hat and lugging a little red wagon, bringing food, clothing and encouragement to somebody in need. “Old Julia,” as she came to be known, did her ministry at night, hobbling on a lame foot, after working all day as a domestic servant. When her own resources were inadequate, she begged for food, fuel, and clothing for the needy. To avoid embarrassing the people she helped, Julia did most of her charitable work under cover of night through dark alleys.

Of note was her great concern for firefighters. Lacking fire codes and safety materials, the wooden buildings of the 19th century were highly combustible. Every month she visited on foot every fire station in Denver and delivered literature of the Sacred Heart League to the firemen, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Julia was also known for her commitment to her Christian faith. When she served the poor and indigent, Julia never questioned their creed or belief; all she wanted to do was lift them up. Julia entered the Catholic Church at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver in 1880, and was an outstanding supporter of all that the parish had to offer. The Jesuits who ran the parish considered her the most enthusiastic promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus they had ever seen. A daily communicant, Julia had a rich devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin and continued her prayers while working and moving about.

She joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901 and was active in it until her death on June 7, 1918, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And it was in Sacred Heart Church, her parish, that funeral was held. As she lived in a boarding house, Julia’s body was laid out in the church, and immediately many hundreds of people began filing past her coffin to pay their grateful respect. As part of the Cause for Canonization, Julia’s mortal remains were transferred from her original grave to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017.

“Julia Greeley is a role model for all women and an inspiration for anyone facing poverty or hardship,” states the website, a Denver program that welcomes women who are homeless and alone into a transitional, family-style home, where they have the time and spiritual support to realize their God-given dignity and achieve self-sufficiency.

Let us pray for the cause of canonization for Servant of God Julia Greeley especially during this season of giving. Prayer cards are available from the Office of Black Catholic Ministry by emailing [email protected], calling (270) 683-1545 or writing to McRaith Catholic Center, 600 Locust St., Owensboro, KY, 42301.

For more information on Julia’s canonization cause, visit

Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.

Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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