Throughout the history of the Church, countless holy men and women have testified to the liberating power of Jesus Christ—often in the midst of very difficult circumstances. We’re all familiar with stories of great evangelists like St. Patrick, holy mystics like Teresa of Ávila, and dedicated servants of the poor like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But there are other figures who have lived more hidden, quiet lives, yet whose love for Christ and devotion to his people are just as heroic. One such figure is Julia Greeley, an African-American woman who was born into slavery but who, after being emancipated, found the greatest freedom in becoming a servant to everyone.
“One-Eyed Julia.” Because Julia was a slave, no records exist telling us exactly when she was born. All we know is that she was born in Hannibal, Missouri, somewhere between 1833 and 1845. During her early years, she endured the same horrific evils that so many other enslaved Africans experienced. When she was only five years old, Julia was injured while witnessing a slave master whip her mother. During one of the master’s passes, the lash of the whip managed to catch young Julia in her right eye, permanently destroying it. As a result, people began to call her “one-eyed Julia.”
Missouri’s Emancipation Act of 1865 freed Julia from slavery. Like many of her peers, she moved west. She found a job as a cook and nanny for a widowed mother of four, Julia Pratte Dickerson. A few years later, Dickerson married William Gilpin, whom Abraham Lincoln had named as the first territorial governor of Colorado. So in 1878, Julia moved with the family to Denver, Colorado, and worked for them for about five years.
A Love for the Sacred Heart. Julia Dickerson was a devout Catholic and, as it turns out, an effective evangelist. She shared her deep love for God with Julia and was instrumental in helping her enter the Catholic Church. In 1880, Julia Greeley was baptized at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and from that point on, sacramental grace began to shape her life. She became a daily communicant and developed the practice of fasting every day until noon—even on days that required a lot of hard work. This led one of the parish priests to regularly ask her if she had eaten breakfast. “My Communion is my breakfast,” Julia would reply.
In keeping with the spirituality of her new parish, Julia soon developed a deep love for the Virgin Mary and the Blessed Sacrament, as well as a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In fact, the Jesuit priests in her parish declared that she was the most fervent promoter of the devotion they had ever seen.
Every month, despite a great deal of arthritic pain, Julia would walk to all twenty of Denver’s firehouses to give the men pamphlets about the Sacred Heart. It’s believed that her monthly pilgrimage was prompted by a fire at the St. James Hotel in 1895 that killed four firefighters. This tragedy struck Julia to the heart, and she dedicated herself to making sure that every firefighter would come to know Jesus’ love for them. Knowing that these men had chosen such a dangerous profession, she wanted all of them to be prepared to meet the Lord. In fact, she once told the city’s fire chief that the tracts she distributed were “tickets to heaven” for the men.
Her Second Home. Julia was a constant presence in the parish, but not everyone welcomed her at first. Some members complained to the pastor about her appearance. Her clothes were shabby, and her right eye—the one blinded by the whip—constantly wept. And she was Black. Someone like this, they thought, shouldn’t be allowed to occupy a pew in the front of the church. The pastor, recognizing the racial prejudice behind their complaints, refused to ask Julia to move.
It’s true that Julia wasn’t well-spoken and couldn’t read or write, but it’s also true that she knew how to serve and treat people with love, even in the face of prejudice. One time, a little girl told Julia that she was afraid to touch her hand for fear that her own hand would turn black. Julia simply responded by kissing her on the cheek and blessing her. Another time, a woman told Julia that when she reached heaven, “she would be as white as the angels on the altar.” Again, Julia showed only love—the same love she had found in the heart of Christ. And that love eventually won over many of her detractors and made Sacred Heart a second home to her.
Charity as a Way of Life. Inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Julia joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901. Julia was constantly visiting the poor and offering to help them in any way they needed it, and she found within the Secular Franciscans a community with the same dedication to serving Christ in the poor and forgotten.
Over time, Julia became a familiar fixture on the streets of Denver: a small, slender figure pulling a red wagon filled with clothes, coal, food, and other items for the needy. She was even spotted carrying an old mattress on her back—a gift for a family that was reduced to sleeping on the floor! What most people didn’t know, however, was that she would travel through dark alleys or under the cover of night when visiting poor White families. She wanted to protect them from the “shame” of receiving charity from a Black woman.
Julia never seemed to lose sight of God’s love for all his children, despite the mistreatment and harsh words she experienced from some. Over time, her acts of charity became well known throughout the city, and she earned the title of Denver’s “Angel of Charity.”
The Gift of the “Soft Answer.” Julia Greeley died unexpectedly on June 17, 1918, which just happened to be the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her body was laid out in Sacred Heart Church, where hundreds of people came to pay their respects. She was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, but in 2017, her remains were moved to Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
St. Alphonsus Liguori often talked about overcoming hatred by acts of love and by offering a “soft answer” that could extinguish the “fire of wrath” in someone. This is exactly what Julia spent her life doing. She was a woman of few words but many actions, and her actions spoke volumes. The way she chose to live each day reflected the love of Christ for every person she encountered, no matter their economic status, skin color, or religion.
Cause for Canonization. Shortly after her death, people began asking that Julia’s cause for canonization be opened. Finally, in the fall of 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver officially began the canonical investigation that, to this point, has led her to be declared a “Servant of God.”
During a time when the world seems increasingly divided and racial tensions seem only to be growing, the life of Servant of God Julia Greeley shows us the profound freedom that Jesus offers. It’s a freedom that overcomes division and prejudice. It’s the kind of freedom that empowers us to love even those who treat us as enemies. In her humble outreach to the needy, Julia reminds us of the ultimate act of charity offered on our behalf—the death and resurrection of Jesus—and she inspires us to be more like him. She shows us that it is in loving people that we discover our truest identity and in giving ourselves away that we experience the greatest freedom. May we always be ready to pour ourselves out in love as she did, and may Julia Greeley’s example spur us on to a deeper life of compassion and generosity.
Deacon Keith Strohm serves in the Archdiocese of Chicago and is the executive director of M3 Ministries.
The icon of Julia Greeley was painted by Vivian Imbruglia, an artist living in Southern California. As with any other icon, this one relates a number of stories about its subject. For instance, Imbruglia painted Julia with a child to reflect the special love Julia had for children. She often took them for rides on the trolley and danced with them in the streets of Denver. The crest at the bottom of the image contains the Franciscan coat of arms, a reflection of Julia’s status as a Secular Franciscan. The wagon in the lower right portion of the crest is a shout-out to her habit of pulling a little red wagon filled with food and other necessities for the poor. And, of course, over all is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose devotion Julia tirelessly promoted. You can learn more about the artist at sacredimages.com.