Capuchin Franciscan Father Blaine Burkey, who is actively promoting Servant of God Julia Greeley’s sainthood cause, is looking for descendants of people with ties to her early life.
Miss Greeley was born into slavery in Marion County, Missouri. She was set free at the end of the Civil War, and moved to Denver.
She was eventually initiated into the Roman Catholic Church and the Secular Franciscan Order, devoting most of the rest of her life to simple acts of charity, devotion and evangelization.
Her 1918 death notice and simple headstone both referred to her as “Beloved Julia Greeley.”
Nearly a century later, the Denver archdiocese opened a sainthood cause for her and moved her earthly remains to a sarcophagus in Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez presided at a Memorial Mass for her last year on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, the 100th anniversary of her death.
He noted that Miss Greeley — not a bishop, not a priest but a former slave known to many as the Angel of Charity — is the only person buried in that cathedral.
“The entire congregation gave a thunderous applause at that point in his sermon,” Fr. Burkey recalled.
The Franciscan priest spent five years gathering and weaving together stories and historical artifacts of her life into a book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life & Virtues of Julia Greeley (2012).
His continued research recently brought him into contact with several descendants of Samuel B. Caldwell, who is now believed to have been Miss Greeley’s slave-owner in Missouri.
Mr. Caldwell had possession of a large plantation at Woodlawn in Marion County, a now-defunct stop along the former Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad — once known as Caldwell Station.
Pleasant Hill Baptist Church still stands near the former Caldwell property. The churchyard contains a large marker inscribed with Mr. Caldwell’s name. Several of his relatives are at rest in the cemetery there.
His descendants include the late Monsignor Richard M. Dierkes (1955-2008), a Hannibal native who was a priest of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, and Mr. Caldwell’s great-great-grandson.
Fr. Burkey recently contacted the monsignor’s sister-in-law, who provided some information about Mr. Caldwell.
There are surely many more descendants who may be helpful.
“We’re talking about five generations who have descended from Samuel Caldwell,” the priest stated. “I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands more.”
Most of them probably don’t know anything about Mr. Caldwell. But some might be versed on their family’s history and have records, documents or photos to share.
“I’m hoping there might be somebody who has done research or is in possession of information on the plantation itself,” said Fr. Burkey. “Maybe there is a photo we haven’t seen yet. Maybe there are slaves in that photo.”
The former plantation is now an empty field.
Miss Greeley was born sometime between 1833 and 1848.
Little is known of her childhood in Missouri, which stayed loyal to the Union while remaining a slave state through the Civil War.
Fr. Burkey found Mr. Caldwell’s name in an article in a 19th-century Denver newspaper containing a reporter’s interview with Miss Greeley.
The priest matched the name against the names of people who owned slaves in Marion County in the mid-1800s.
“So we now have an idea of where she was,” the priest stated.
Documentation of her early life remains scarce. Records of slaves were not consistently kept, let alone their names.
“That’s one of the terrible things about being a slave,” Fr. Burkey noted. “Their identities were taken away.”
Furthermore, the law forbade teaching slaves how to read or write.
“She knew her parents’ names but she didn’t even know how old she was,” Fr. Burkey noted.
After the Civil War, Miss Greeley became a housekeeper and nursemaid to the children of Dr. Paul Gerard Robinson, who married into one of the first families of St. Louis, the well-known Pratte family.
About 1878, Miss Greeley moved to Denver to perform similar service for Mrs. Robinson’s sister, also named Julia, who had married William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado.
Miss Greeley worked odd jobs around that city after emancipating herself from the Gilpins’ payroll.
She found her spiritual home at Sacred Heart parish and converted to Catholic Christianity in 1880.
Never knowing whether she had been baptized as an infant, she received conditional baptism — as in “just in case” — upon her initiation into the Church.
Angel of Charity
Not only is Miss Greeley one of a handful of African-American Catholics who are being considered for sainthood, she is currently also the only member of the Secular Franciscan Order in the United States to have an open sainthood case.
She was a daily communicant and in 1901 made her profession in what was then known as the Third Order of St. Francis, pledging to live the Gospel at home, at work, in her parish and in the world, in keeping with the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Jesuit priests at her parish found her to be a most fervent promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
That devotion filled her with passion to serve God by helping the poor and marginalized.
Despite her own poverty and long hours of housekeeping and taking care of children, she devoted much of her time to collecting food, clothing and other goods for the poor.
She would often carry-out her ministry after dark, so as to avoid embarrassing the people she was helping.
She died on June 7, 1918, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart.
Afterward, her body lay in state in a Catholic church for five hours, while multitudes came to pay their respects.
She was buried in her Third Order habit of that era.
Inspiration and intercession
A formal declaration of a deceased person’s heroic virtue, along with miracles attributed to God through that person’s prayerful intercession in heaven, are part of the exhaustive process the Church undertakes each time a saint is declared.
Such miracles, objectively and meticulously investigated, are understood to be a sign of God’s approval.
Fr. Burkey thinks God wants the Church to declare Miss Greeley a saint.
Formally stating that she is in heaven would encourage the faithful to ask her to pray for them and to follow her example in growing closer to Jesus.
Fr. Burkey sees Miss Greeley as a model of Christian charity, forgiveness and joy.
Instead of holding grudges, she fixed her gaze on Jesus’ Sacred Heart and on directing His mercy toward people in need.
She carried throughout her life an eye injury resulting from being struck as a child by a slave-driver’s whip.
“Yet, she took care of people, even some of the same type of people who had done mean things to her and caused her problems,” said Fr. Burkey.
“All of us stand to learn a great deal from her example,” he said.
Anyone with information about the Samuel B. Caldwell family or his plantation at Woodland is encouraged to contact Fr. Burkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 204-1924
For more information on Miss Greeley and the Julia Greeley Guild or to order Fr. Burkey’s book, go to: www.juliagreeley.org.
Contributing to this article were Catholic News Service, Catholic News Agency-EWTN, the Denver Catholic newspaper of the Denver archdiocese, the Julia Greeley Guild and the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Conrad in Colorado.