By all odds, the life of Julia Greeley should have been lost to history. Born into slavery in the 1840s, she came into the world with no last name and few prospects, and by all accounts, was poor all her life. Yet today she qualifies as a true heroic figure — the kind of real-life hero that parents would be eager to introduce to their kids.
Now, the accomplished essayist and writer of children’s books, Maura Roan McKeegan, has done just that. Her latest picture book, Julia Greeley: Secret Angel to the Poor (Ignatius-Magnificat, 2022) recounts the true — and truly heroic — story of a woman who overcame cruel racial oppression, physical disabilities and lifelong poverty to become celebrated even in her lifetime as “Denver’s Angel of Charity.” As befits a hero, her life story has not only endured but has grown stronger with time: Today, a century after her death in 1918, she holds the title Servant of God, and her cause for beatification and canonization is moving forward in Rome.
Yet Julia’s life has been much of a secret to most Catholics, including McKeegan. In a recent interview, she recalled the moment a friend asked her to pray for a dying relative through the intercession of Julia Greeley.
“I thought to myself, ‘Who is Julia Greeley?’ I had never heard of her before.”
When her friend’s dying relative made an unexpected and full recovery, Keegan’s writer’s instincts went on full alert. By then, the former elementary and middle school teacher was well into her next career as an author specializing in children’s books, and a frequent essayist for a number of publications that include Catholic Digest, Catholic Exchange, Franciscan Magazine and The Imaginative Conservative. She is also a homeschooling mom with four children, ages 8 to 18.
Intrigued by the stunning recovery, McKeegan sought out Julia’s definitive biography by Father Blaine Burkey, a Capuchin priest based in Denver who writes extensively on historical matters. Father Blaine has combed Denver’s official records and contemporary accounts to write a meticulously documented account of Julia Greeley’s life, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart, now in its third edition.
“I ordered Father Blaine’s book, and the more I read, the more I loved Julia and the graces surrounding her story,” McKeegan says. “I was deeply moved by her authenticity and her single-mindedness, and her incredible capacity for love. The way she stayed united with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, especially when she was treated so terribly, was a tremendous inspiration to me.”
She saw Julia’s story as a natural for her specialty, which is to write picture books designed for children, which are also a compelling read for adults.
“I felt a calling on my heart,” she says. “Picture books are my passion.” Through picture books, she tells stories to spark a child’s intelligence and wonder, while drawing them to a deeper understanding of God’s eternal truths. What’s more, through “the unity of art and words” that a picture book offers, the whole family can share the experience of reading a book and be challenged and inspired to learn together.
McKeegan teamed up with the noted illustrator Gina Capaldi on the Julia Greeley project — it’s their third collaboration — and found they both had the same reaction to her life story. McKeegan’s words, combined with Capaldi’s lively yet dreamlike watercolors, capture both the sweetness and hardships of Julia’s earthly struggles.
“Gina is such a gift. As soon as she was introduced to Julia, she was captivated by her story just like I was,” says McKeegan. “The feelings she pours into her illustrations portray the playfulness and childlikeness of Julia’s character, while at the same time capturing the emotional and spiritual depth of her story.”
McKeegan draws her themes from a longstanding interest in theology, which led to graduate courses in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Her first book, The End of the Fiery Sword (Emmaus Road, 2014) was the launch of a series of books that revealed the link between cherished events of the Old Testament, and how each one has come to fulfillment in the New (for example, how the promise of Adam and Eve is fulfilled through Jesus and Mary).
Her most recent book (2022), Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press, 2022), is a collaboration with the best-selling author, speaker and theologian Scott Hahn, and takes young readers on a playful and exciting journey of discovery that helps reveal the mysteries of the Eucharist.
As for Julia Greeley? The deeper McKeegan dived into Father Burkey’s book, the more intrigued she became: “I tried to immerse myself in her world. There is such a tangible grace around her; she became a saint friend. You’re not just reading about somebody in the history books, she becomes a part of your life. I felt a calling to write a children’s book about her.”
In fact, Julia’s life story is a natural draw for kids. Despite her many crosses, Julia was known to break out in song as she worked. She loved to dance, and she boldly shared her faith with firefighters. She became known throughout Denver as the “angel” who often worked in secret, assisting people even poorer than she. A Catholic convert and daily Mass goer, she also faced the haughty racism of some members of her own parish. With her deft storyteller’s touch, in a few words McKeegan turns that appalling lack of charity into a lesson of justice and mercy, finely told.
The key to writing meaningful, intelligent books for children? It helps to have a roster of editors and critics at home, McKeegan says, with a laugh.
“I need an audience in the age range, so my children are some of my best advisers on everything I write,” she says. “They love picture books too, and we read hundreds of them a year.” When one of Mom’s books is in the works, the children are the first to read the early drafts; then, as they see the illustrations come in, they marvel at the artist’s talent. When at last the published books arrive at the door, they open the box together and gather around to read the books aloud.
“Working on these books is a blessing and a joy for our whole family, from start to finish.”
Julia’s story — in essence, one person’s triumph of good over evil — celebrates qualities that McKeegan agrees are not always valued today in children’s entertainment.
“In the field of children’s books there are weeds and wheat,” McKeegan says, referencing the Gospel parable (Matthew 13:24-30). “You try to focus on the wheat, and let the good grow, and hopefully families will find the best books to give their children and try to contribute to the good.”
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