On Ash Wednesday, Ann Sieben was spiritually filled, receiving ashes, the Eucharist and a pilgrim’s blessing. And with that, she headed off on a solo pilgrimage from St. Louis to Denver to share with others the story of Julia Greeley, a former slave known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity” and who is being considered for canonization.
Greeley, who was born into slavery in Hannibal, Mo., sometime between 1833-1848, and worked in St. Louis as a domestic helper for nearly 10 years after her emancipation, spent much of her life quietly serving poor families. She also lived and worked as a domestic helper in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico — though she mostly lived in the Denver area. She died in 1918. Her cause for canonization was opened in 2016, giving her the title Servant of God.
“This is to help her along the way,” Sieben said. “To be a beacon of what a holy person can do in their lifetime is an inspiration to all of us.”
Sieben’s Lenten pilgrimage started at Saint Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur, where she was hosted by the Benedictine monks. Her journey — roughly 1,300 miles, all by foot — will take her north to Greeley’s birthplace in Hannibal, and then west toward Denver, where she is based. She is expected to arrive at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver on April 30, just in time for the Easter Vigil.
As part of the canonization process, Greeley’s remains were exhumed and transferred in June 2017 to the cathedral basilica in Denver. She is the only person to be interred there. When Sieben arrives in Denver, she will place at Greeley’s tomb a small notebook with prayer intentions she anticipates collecting along her journey. The notebook is called Julia’s Canoe, after a saying Greeley used when praying for others. (See related.)
Sieben, who is considered a mendicant pilgrim, has made these walking pilgrimages a vocation as a consecrated layperson with the Society of Servant Pilgrims. “My duty is to walk from village to village throughout the world and encounter the people who live there,” she said. Every day she must find a community, whether a church, family or a VFW or Knights of Columbus hall, for example, and ask for a place to stay overnight.
“From my 12 years of experience with this, I know people will invite me into their community and offer me a place to sleep. They will do that because of trust — and trust is the foundation of peace, which is universal. It’s an action of building trust.”
A pilgrim must always have a purpose and destination, Sieben said. On her journey, she will have the opportunity to talk to the people she encounters along the way about Greeley’s life. “She is an example to all of us, whether Catholic or Christian or otherwise, as a person who lived in somewhat modern times and on her own accord helped the poor. She sought opportunities to help the people — she was very active in her help to fellow humanity.”
Greeley, a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, was described as giving both charity and sympathy in “unstinted measure,” according to a 1918 Denver Post article from her funeral at Sacred Heart Church in Denver.
“They looked on the face of Julia Greeley, an aged negro woman, whose heritage when she entered life had been the shackles of a slave and whose bequest when she departed after 85 years of worthy living, is the memory of deeds kindly done; of unselfish devotion to those she loved; and a habit of giving and sharing herself and her goods …” wrote the Post’s social editor, Frances Wayne.
Greeley often worked in the night helping others in need, as a measure to protect their dignity. In his book “In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart,” Capuchin Franciscan Father Blaine Burkey noted that Greeley might have been mistaken for a “common bag lady as she hobbled up and down Larimer and Lawrence streets pulling a little red wagon or lugging and old gunny sack. Sometimes they were filled with used clothing; at other time food stuffs or broken toys or firewood. … Often she was on the streets and back alleys at night, apparently unafraid of the dark.”
“She had a very subtle diplomacy and being sensitive to a person’s dignity,” Sieben said. “It was a mechanism for how she could be effective.”
Sieben will be providing regular updates from her pilgrimage, which will be shared at the website of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (www.denvercathedral.org) and the Denver Catholic’s Facebook page at Denver Catholic.
Servant of God Julia Greeley
Julia Greeley was born into
slavery in Hannibal, Mo., sometime between 1833 and 1848. While she was
still a young child, a cruel slavemaster, in the course of beating her
mother, caught Julia’s right eye with his whip and destroyed it.
by Missouri’s Emancipation Act in 1865, Julia subsequently earned her
keep by serving white families in Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and New
Mexico — though mostly in the Denver area. Whatever she did not need for
herself, Julia spent assisting poor families in her neighborhood. When
her own resources were inadequate, she begged for food, fuel and
clothing for the needy. One writer later called her a “one-person St.
Vincent de Paul Society.” To avoid embarrassing the people she helped,
Julia did most of her charitable work under cover of night through dark
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. 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.
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 till
her death in 1918.
As she lived in a boarding house, Julia’s body
was laid out in church, and immediately many hundreds of people began
filing pass her coffin to pay their grateful respect. She was buried in
Mt. Olivet Cemetery and to the present day many people have been asking
that her cause be considered for canonization, a request which was
finally granted in the fall of 2016. She was given the title Servant of
God. As part of the Cause for Canonization, Julia’s remains were
transferred to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
on June 7, 2017.
Source: Julia Greeley Guild
>> Society of Servant Pilgrims
Ann Sieben has had
more than a decade of experience going on pilgrimages. As a mendicant
pilgrim (one who dedicates her life to walking on pilgrimages, often
going solo and carrying nothing of value) she started the Society of
Servant Pilgrims under the approval of the Archdiocese of Denver. In
2016, the society became an official Association of the Christian
Faithful under canon law.
In 2017, Sieben and several others took part in a pilgrimage
from Mound City, Kan., to St. Charles to commemorate the spirit of the
journey of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. The saint arrived in America in
1818 to establish schools with her community, the Society of the Sacred
Heart. A second pilgrimage took place in in the fall 2018, this time
ending at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis on St. Rose Philippine’s
feast day Nov. 18.
Sieben has gone on pilgrimages all over the world, including Scandinavia, France, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Mexico.
To see updates from Ann Sieben on her pilgrimage in honor of Julia Greeley, visit the Denver Catholic Facebook page or the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at www.denvercathedral.org.
To learn more about the Society of Servant Pilgrims, see www.societyofservantpilgrims.com.
>> Julia’s Canoe
More than 100 years ago, on Aug. 2, the
Feast of Our Lady of Angels of the Portiuncula, the Servant of God Julia
Greeley crossed the street from St. Elizabeth Church to Mrs. Fisher’s
grocery and café to get something to eat. Mary, the kitchen girl had
already finished the dishes and tidied up.
“Oh, get something for
Julia anyhow,” Mrs. Fisher told her. “All right,” said Mary, “but you’ll
have to pray for me, Julia.” That prompted Julia to say, “Mary, I’ll
put you in a canoe with a lot of others I pray for. But I’ll pray
special for Mrs. Fisher, all by herself.”
The Julia Greeley Guild
invites petitions for the guild’s Julia’s Canoe Prayer Circle. Prayer
intentions may be submitted to JuliasCanoe@gmail.com. Guild asks that
you notify it in writing, at the address below, of any favors received
through Julia’s intercession. If you do not have an email account, send
your intention to Julia’s Canoe, c/o Julia Greeley Guild, 1535 N. Logan
St., Denver CO 80203-1913.
Source: Julia Greeley Guild
>> Julia Greeley’s St. Louis connection
stint in St. Louis included domestic work for Dr. Paul Gervais Robinson
and his wife, Lina Pratte Robinson. While working for the Robinsons, she
met Lina’s sister, Julia Pratte Dickerson. A widow with four children,
Julia Dickerson married William Gilpin, the first territorial governor
of Colorado. When they moved to Denver, Greeley followed them.
was Julia Gilpin who introduced Greeley to the Catholic faith. She was
baptized in 1880 at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. Through the image of
the Sacred Heart, Greeley dedicated her life to serving Christ. She
often prayed and fasted, sharing leaflets about the Catholic faith with
The Julia Greeley Guild is seeking descendants of the
Pratte family as part of its research into Greeley’s life. Information
can be shared with Father Blaine Burkey, OFMCap, by emailing him at