St. Geneviève of Paris

(also known as Genovefa)
Born in Nanterre near Paris, France, c. 422; died in Paris, c. 500 Geneviève was born in a village on the outskirts of Paris during the time of Attila the Hun. She was a shepherdess, the only child of Severus and Gerontia, hardworking peasants. Geneviève was so bright and attractive that when Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, was visiting the village with Saint Lupus on their way to Britain in 429 to squelch Pelagianism, he took special notice of the seven-year-old. After his sermon, the inhabitants flocked about them to receive their blessings. Germanus beckoned for her parents and foretold her future sanctity. When he asked Geneviève if she wished to be a spouse of Christ and serve God only, she asked that he bless her and consecrate her from that moment.

Taking a gold coin from his purse, he gave it to her, telling her to keep it always as a reminder of that day and of God to whom her life belonged. Although in later years Geneviève was often hungry and had no other money, she never parted with the coin. Another version recorded by Constantius tells how the holy bishop went to the church, followed by the people, and during the long singing of Psalms and prayers, “he laid his hand upon the maiden’s head.” In either case, she continued tending the sheep and helping her blind mother in spinning and weaving.

When Geneviève was 15, her parents died and she went to live in Paris, where she repeated her vows and the bishop of Paris gave her and two other girls the veil. She settled with her godmother Lutetia in Paris. In the course of time, she became famous for her sanctity. She frequently ate only twice a week–sparingly (a small portion of barley bread and some beans). (This fasting she continued until age 50 when her bishop commanded her to alter her diet.)

She experienced visions and prophecies, which initially evoked hostility from Parisians–to the point that an attempt was made to take her life. But the support of Germanus, who visited her again, and the accuracy of her predictions eventually changed their attitudes. (Germanus also corrected some of her harsher penances during this visit.)

The young girl loved to pray in church alone at night. One day a gust of wind blew out her candle, leaving her in the dark. Geneviève merely concluded that the devil was trying to frighten her. For this reason she is often depicted holding a candle, sometimes with an irritated devil standing near.

Her bravery rallied the city in 451, when Attila II the Hun’s army marched on the city in an attempt to wrest Gaul from the Visigoths. The citizens were ready to evacuate the city. As the Huns battered at the gates of Paris, Geneviève persuaded the men to stay and gathered the women of the city for prayer. Her courage depended on complete trust in God, and as Attila and his army approached she encouraged the Parisians to fast and pray in the hope that God would avert disaster. Many citizens spent whole days in prayer with her in the baptistery. It is from this that the devotion to Saint Geneviève, formerly practiced at Saint- Jean-le-Rond, the ancient public baptistery of the church of Paris, appears to have originated. She reassured the people that they had the protection of heaven. She cared for the sick, fed the poor, and everywhere inspired confidence. “God will protect you,” she said, “we must trust in Him.”

At one point, however, when the crisis was at its height and the people were panic-stricken, they turned against her, wanting to stone her and saying that she was a false prophet who would bring about their destruction, and they threatened to stone her. But the good Bishop Germanus had not forgotten her, and though he lay dying in Ravenna, Italy, he sent his archdeacon Sedulius to pacify the people. Sedulius persuaded the panic-stricken people that Geneviève was not a prophetess of doom, and to listen to her counsel not to abandon their homes. Many of the inhabitants lost heart and fled in panic, but Geneviève again gathered the women around her, and led them out on to the ramparts of the city, where in the morning light and in the face of the spears of the enemy they prayed to God for deliverance. Providentially, the same night, the invader turned south to Orleans, and again the city was saved, since when Geneviève, who was venerated even by the enemy, has been acclaimed as a savior and heroine of her people.

In 486 the saint’s bravery proved invaluable for the people of Paris for the second time. The Frankish King Clovis killed Syragrius, the Roman representative in Soissons, ending the Roman governance of Gaul. King Childeric of the Franks besieged the Paris, bringing its inhabitants to the point of starvation.

One night, when the city was blockaded and there was a serious shortage of food, Geneviève took a boat and rowed out alone (more likely at the head of a company) upon the river into the darkness to Arcis-sur-Aube and Troyes. She slipped silently and secretly past the lines of the enemy, landing at dawn far outside the city, where she went from village to village imploring help and gathering food, and returned to Paris–again successfully evading the enemy–with eleven boatloads of precious corn. (Other sources say that nightly she captained eleven barges to collect grain in the Champagne region.)

When the siege was over, Childeric, the ever-pagan conqueror, in admiration of her courage, sent for her and asked what he might do for her. “Release your prisoners,” she replied. “Their only fault was that they so dearly loved their city.” And this he granted.

When, on the death of Childeric, Clovis succeeded him and consolidated control of the land from the Rhine to the Loire. He married Childeric’s elder daughter, Clothilde, who was a Christian and tried to convert her husband without success. Clovis allowed his first son to be baptized, but the child died. The second son was baptized and came close to death, but recovered at the prayers of Clothilde and Remi.

Meanwhile, Geneviève became his trusted counsellor. Clovis entered a harsh battle and promised to be baptized, if he should win. He won and under the influence of Geneviève, he converted in 496. His people and servants followed suit. Clovis, like Childeric, released many prisoners at her request. Later, however, fresh troubles came to the city, and once more it was threatened by an invading army.

Geneviève also initiated the interest of many people in building a church in honor of Saint Denis, which was afterward rebuilt with a monastery by King Dagobert in 629. Geneviève made many pilgrimages in the company of other maidens to the shrine of Saint Martin of Tours. Her reputation for sanctity is so great that it even reached Saint Simeon the Stylite in Syria (he asked to be remembered in her prayers).

By the time she died King Clovis of the Franks had grown to venerate the saint. It was at Geneviève’s suggestion that Clovis began to build the church of SS. Peter and Paul in the middle of Paris, where they interred her body. Later the church was renamed Sainte Geneviève and it was rebuilt in 1746.

From the time of her burial, miracles performed at her tomb made her and the Church famous all over France. The most famous instance of all is the so-called miracle des Ardens or burning fever (ergot-poisoning) in 1129. Bishop Stephen of Paris had her shrine carried through the streets in solemn procession. Many thousands of the sick who saw or touched the shrine were immediately cured, and only several deaths from the plague were said to have occurred thereafter. In the following year, Pope Innocent II ordered that date to be kept annually in commemoration of the miracle.

In times of national crisis the French have often turned to Geneviève for help. In 1741, Louis XV came to her church to thank her for a cure wrought at her intercession. When the Bastille was taken, people again came to thank her. In 1790, the Commune went to her church for Mass. In 1793 the body of Saint Geneviève was taken from her shrine and publicly burned at the Place de Greve. At the time of the French Revolution, the church was secularized and is now called the Pantheon, a burial place for French worthies. But some of the relics were spared and later placed in the Church of Saint Etienne (Stephen) du Mont, where thousands visit them each year.

Most of the information about Geneviève derives from a Life that claims to be by a contemporary; its authenticity and value are the subject of much discussion. The idea that she was a shepherdess is recent and without authority; the evidence suggests that she came from a family of good position. She was a real person, however; her name is entered in Saint Jerome’s Martyrology, which makes her cultus very ancient. (Attwater, Bentley, Delaney, Farmer, Gill, Encyclopedia, Martindale, Walsh, White).

In art she is shown as a shepherdess, usually holding a candle– which the devil is trying to extinguish, while an angel guards it– or a book or torch. She may have a coin suspended around her neck (the one Germanus gave her). Sometimes she may be shown as a nun with sheep near her, with the devil at her feet with bellows, a key in one hand and candle in the other, or restoring sight to her mother (Benedictines, Roeder, White).

Many miracles in favor of Paris have been attributed to her intercession. She is the patron saint of Paris, of disasters, of drought and excessive rain, of fever, and of the French security forces. Her efforts to maintain the safety of Paris led to her being made the patron of French security forces (White). 

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