Some months ago, I received an email from a friend requesting prayers.
“Please pray for my sister-in-law,” the email said. “She is in an induced coma with liver failure.” It was a sudden illness, and it didn’t look like she would survive. But her family still had hope.
“We are praying for the intercession of Julia Greeley,” my friend wrote.
Who is Julia Greeley? I wondered as I read the email. I had never heard of her before. When I looked her up, her story captured my heart.
Who is Julia Greeley?
In her big, floppy black hat and old black dress, pulling a little red wagon behind her, Julia Greeley was a familiar sight on the streets of Denver in the early 1900s.
If you had arrived there and seen her, “you well might have mistaken Julia for a common bag lady,” Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M. Cap. writes in his book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley. “…You were in for a big surprise, however, when you found out who Julia Greeley really was.”
Julia was an ex-slave, and had moved to Colorado to work as a servant. She cleaned houses, watched children, and cooked for families. People called her “Old Julia,” though she never knew how old she actually was, because no one ever told her exactly when she was born (it was sometime between 1833 and 1848.)
The little red wagon she pulled was usually filled with food, coal, firewood, and used clothing. Some of these goods, she bought with her own meager income. What she couldn’t afford to buy, she begged for.
But the things Julia collected in her wagon were not for herself. In the daylight, she gathered the items; in the dark of night, she delivered them to families in need. Despite her own poverty, Julia was acutely aware of the needs of the most destitute families in Denver, and she considered it her “joy” to help them by leaving donations on their doorsteps.
Julia was also very aware of how embarrassing it might be for these families to be seen receiving charity from her. That’s why she waited until nightfall to make her deliveries in secret. Night after night, she limped for miles on arthritic legs, leaving gifts on porches, hobbling through back alleys in order to stay hidden.
In addition to bringing food, fuel, and clothing, Julia would sometimes fix up broken dolls to give to children, or push baby buggies through the streets to deliver to expectant mothers. Once, she was seen on the streets at night carrying a mattress on her back.
Her charity extended well beyond her secret deliveries. If someone died, Julia would come to the house to make meals and help needy families find funeral clothes. She even gave away her own burial plot for a poor man when she heard that he was going to be buried in a potter’s field.
When she realized that a group of poor girls couldn’t attend socials because they couldn’t afford nice dresses, she arranged for a group of girls across town to donate their gently worn dresses, so that “her girls” (whose names she kept secret) could attend the socials and enjoy the youthful pleasures that poverty had denied them.
Julia especially loved children, and they loved her. She played and sang with them in the streets, watched babies for tired moms, and sat up all night taking care of sick children so their parents could sleep. The only known picture of Julia in existence is of her holding a baby she used to watch, named Marjorie. In the photo, Marjorie is holding Julia’s rosary, on which Julia started teaching her to pray when Marjorie was only four months old.
Julia’s joy was extraordinary, especially in light of the suffering she endured from her own childhood. She was mostly illiterate, as slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read and write. She had a deformed eye—the result of an injury she sustained as a little girl, when a slave owner’s whip marred her eye. For the rest of her life, fluid oozed and drained from the eye socket. Julia wiped it continuously with a handkerchief.
People who knew Julia said her appearance could be jarring at first, but her personality soon eclipsed all first impressions, and her smile was unforgettable.
The charity and joy that emanated from her smile and animated her life found their source in her deep faith. Julia had entered the Church in 1880, through the influence of a Catholic woman for whom she worked.
Ever since then, Julia had been a daily communicant at Sacred Heart parish in Denver. She had a fervent devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. According to one newspaper article (written after her death), she was “declared by the Jesuit Fathers of that church to have been the most zealous apostle of the Sacred Heart they had ever known.”
Julia’s great love for the Sacred Heart was particularly well known to every firefighter in the city of Denver. Every first Friday of the month—the day that honors the Sacred Heart—she would walk to all the firehouses in the city, bringing Sacred Heart badges and leaflets to the firemen. She had a tender solicitude for their souls, and she laughed while they joked with her. They also contributed to her charitable endeavors.
The Promise of the Sacred Heart
On June 7, 1918, Julia left her boarding house and began walking to Sacred Heart church, one block away, as she did every morning. She fell ill and went to a friend’s house instead. The friend called the priest, who administered the last sacraments to Julia before she was taken to the hospital. She died of kidney failure later that day.
It was the first Friday of the month—and it was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This beloved apostle of the Sacred Heart passed into eternity on the very day that honored the devotion to which she had dedicated her life.
The priests at the parish had her body laid out in the chapel, never anticipating the crowds that would descend upon the wake. To everyone’s astonishment, for five hours, hundreds of people, rich and poor, from all over the city, filed past Julia’s body to pay their respects.
Newspaper reporters wrote articles describing the unprecedented turnout for this poor ex-slave who had touched so many lives. The story of her extraordinary charity was handed down from one generation to the next, until finally, in 2016, her cause for canonization was introduced.
A few days after I received the first email from my friend, requesting prayers for his sister-in-law, a second email came.
“It’s been an amazing couple of days,” my friend wrote. The doctors had been talking about taking his sister-in-law off life support, when she began to improve. By the next day, she was sitting up and talking. Not long after, she was released from the hospital.
My friend’s remarkable story is one of many favors attributed to the intercession of Servant of God Julia Greeley.
In the 12 Promises of the Sacred Heart, Jesus promised to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, “Those who promote this devotion will have their names written in my heart, never to be effaced.”
Of all the names written there, surely the name of Julia Greeley is among them, inscribed for all eternity in the place that was the wellspring of her incredible strength, her astonishing charity, and her inexhaustible faith.
Editor’s note: If you would like to learn more about Julia Greeley, we reccomend the work of the Julia Greeley Guild at JuliaGreeley.org, where you can also find the book In Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley by Fr. Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap.
If you are inspired by the life of Julia Greeley, check out the article “The Saintly Life of Father Augustus Tolton”, which is an excerpt from Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’s book, Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest.
image: Julia Greeley, from the Denver Catholic (circa 1915), the only known photograph of her / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).