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Former MSU Denver student Jessica Filipeli helps Assistant Professor Christine Pink exhume the grave of Julia Greeley in May 2017. Photo by Anya Semenoff.

The case of Denver's angel of charity

As a forensic anthropologist, Christine Pink helps build cases against the accused. Her recent work, however, could help build a case for sainthood.

October 26, 2017

By Nathan Solheim

One day in the fall of 2016, Christine Pink was sitting at her desk when the phone rang. For Pink, who works as a forensic anthropologist for law-enforcement agencies, coroners and medical examiners, the call could have been another routine request such as those portrayed on a popular police procedural.

Instead, it was a higher power calling.

On the other end of the line, a representative from the Denver Archdiocese asked her to take part in one of the church’s most sacred processes — beatification. In layman’s terms, that meant Pink was being asked to help investigate a case for a sainthood. While a religious process, beatification involves the scientific expertise and methods of investigators such as Pink. The church official also told her she’d be working to help the cause of the late Julia Greeley, who’s known locally as a Mile High City version of Mother Teresa.

Pink, who teaches paleopathology, bioarchaeology, forensic anthropology and other subjects as an MSU Denver assistant professor, instantly took the assignment.

“When I got the call, I had a lot of casework going on,” Pink recalls. “But this was something different.”

Taking the assignment meant exhuming Greeley’s remains and examining them to confirm her identity. Also, Pink was asked to report anything else that could be captured from an analysis of Greeley’s remains. The result of her research will be included in a formal report that is a part of Greeley’s case for sainthood.

‘Angel of Charity’

To put it mildly, the assignment was a first for Pink. She started her investigation by learning as much as she could about Greeley’s life. A local group heavily involved in the beatification process — the Julia Greeley Guild — maintains a robust website, publishes monthly newsletters and produced a book about Greeley. After immersing herself in the guild’s resources, Pink came to understand that Greeley had overcome lots of hardship during her life and endured more than her share of pain.

Greeley was born a slave in Hannibal, Mo.; her exact birth date is lost to history. Not much is known about her time in bondage except that she was at one point struck by a slave master’s whip, causing partial blindness in her right eye. It’s not known exactly how, but Greeley gained her freedom in 1863 and migrated west, working for several families in a few Western states. She settled in Denver and took a job in the house of William Gilpin, who served as Colorado’s first territorial governor during the Civil War and had become one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. After a time, Greeley left the Gilpin house and worked odd jobs throughout the Mile High City for the rest of her life.

When she wasn’t working, Pink learned, Greeley did all she could for the rough-and-tumble city’s poor, giving away what she didn’t need and begging for food, fuel and clothing when she didn’t have anything left to give. Greeley would deliver it all to families around Denver in a little red wagon and under cover of night to avoid embarrassing her beneficiaries. She even hobbled around to Denver’s fire stations in spite of a distinctive limp to deliver Christian literature to firefighters because their jobs were so dangerous. And Greeley did this work amid open racism, toiling to help those less fortunate as an African-American at time when Denver was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. Her will shows an “X” for a signature.

The only known photograph of Julia Greeley. Courtesy of the Julia Greeley Guild.

Pink also learned that Greeley was highly regarded during her time in Denver because of her piousness, kind spirit and sense of humor. She had become a Catholic in 1880 and attended Mass daily. There’s even a story about how she entered a beauty contest even though people thought she was homely, but because she was so popular she was voted the winner anyway. She gave away the winnings. When Greeley died in 1918, benefactors put up the money for her grave because she’d given hers away to a poor African-American man who died without any means.

“Many Coloradans don’t know it, but Denver has its own Mother Teresa – Julia Greeley,” says Archbishop Samuel Aquila. “She was a former slave who had every reason to be bitter about life: Her right eye was blinded by a slave master’s whip when she was little, she earned $10 to $12 a month doing menial labor, and she was discriminated against because of her race. But everyone who knew Julia said that she was heroically faithful, joyful, generous and humble.”

For her efforts, Greeley became known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity.”

From a grave to an altar

After looking into Greeley’s history, Pink began researching burial records and found that she was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge.

Before beginning a formal exhumation at Greeley’s grave, Pink confirmed the existence of a body at the site with a local Ground Penetrating Radar expert. After the report came back conclusive, Pink recruited MSU Denver’s Jonathan Kent, an archaeology professor, and Jessica Filipeli, a senior anthropology student of hers at the time, and exhumed Greeley’s body in May.

Pink worked in the grave for several days, carefully removing bones and other fragments while documenting them with her notebook and camera. Once all the remains were gathered, Pink transferred them to an on-site examination room for a week’s worth of further study. “It’s the same skeletal analysis I would do with any forensic case,” Pink says. “I did a biological profile — age, sex, ancestry, stature — then I looked for any pathological conditions. Then, I could come to an ID.”

Because of sound historical documentation and reliable burial records, Pink’s identification of Greeley was much less mysterious than many of her other cases. But her examination did lead to several discoveries about Greeley’s life that bolster her candidacy for sainthood.

For instance, Pink found that Greeley suffered from arthritis. Pink saw that Greeley had small growths called osteophytes on joints throughout her body. From their presence, Pink could tell that Greeley spent a good deal of her life suffering from pain most people would consider debilitating.

“Pain is a subjective thing, but I would be comfortable saying she experienced some severe pain even though she was walking the streets of Denver and helping other people,” Pink says.

In cases such as Greeley’s, the church looks for heroic virtue as evidence of saintly behavior, and Pink’s examination helped determine that Greeley performed her work amid great pain — a previously unknown aspect of Greeley’s life. There’s no recorded instance of Greeley ever complaining about her condition.

As part of her work for the church, Pink was asked to participate in a formal transfer of remains ceremony along with David Uebbing (to her left), Bishop Jorge Rodriguez and more officials. Photo by Anya Semenoff.

“Dr. Pink’s work was quite helpful in verifying testimony about Julia’s physical traits, as well as uncovering some unknown things about her character, like the fact that she served the poor without complaining about the arthritis present in nearly every joint in her body,” Aquila says.

After completing her report, Pink was asked to accompany Greeley’s remains to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, where she took part in a formal transfer of remains ceremony in June. After the ceremony, many people approached her about her contributions to Greeley’s cause almost as if she had attained a bit of “CSI” celebrity. It wasn’t a typical day for a forensic anthropologist who says the majority of her work occurs behind the scenes.

“It was an intense couple of weeks,” Pink says. “There was a deadline, and everything had to be done — the exhumation took a number of days to do right. It takes time — you have to minimize damage and document everything.”

On to the Holy See

Pink’s report is part of a yearlong local phase of the sainthood effort. Though her work is complete, other facets of the case are being gathered by a church historical commission and a church tribunal here in Denver. Church officials hope to complete this phase by next June 7 — the 100th anniversary of Greeley’s death.

After that, the case will be sent to Rome, where it will undergo another multi-year round of scrutiny at the Vatican before a decision can be made on whether to add Greeley’s name to the list of more than 10,000 officially recognized saints. If the effort succeeds, Greeley will be venerated in a church with a 2,000-year history and billions of adherents past and present.

“I treat all cases with the same attention as far as the level of detail,” Pinks says. “The significance of it and that I was able to participate in something that not many forensic anthropologists get to do was not lost on me.”

So, for a singular time in Pink’s career, she won’t be waiting to hear how her findings contribute to a conviction; she’ll instead be waiting to hear news of a canonization. And though most people in Denver who know Greeley’s story already think her a saint, the church will take at least five years to decide whether Greeley will be officially recognized as one. Until then, only God knows.

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