Saint Genevieve of Paris

Saint Genevieve was a remarkable woman and would have been a force regardless of the era that she was born into but it is all the more impressive how much she achieved in her lifetime when one considers when she was born. The life of Saint Geneviève is well known because of the manuscript of her "vita": it is a biography written at the request of her friend, Saint Clotilde, wife of Clovis son of King Childéric, King of the Francs. The author is said to be a Burgundian Catholic priest.

This document was written 18 years after the death of the saint, who died before Clovis (511) at 80 years of age; the text dates, therefore, from 520 AD to 530 AD. In addition to a voluminous hagiography, many historians have devoted their works to the life of Geneviève. 

Geneviève was born in Nanterre around 420 AD and she died in Paris around 500 AD. Her parents, Sévérus (a Romanised Franc) and Gérontie belonged to the Gallo-Roman autocracy; they gave their only daughter a Germanic name which means "born into a woman"; Geneviève was a Roman citizen and, by the legal code then in force, she exercised the office of municipal magistrate of her father. The family were wealthy and managed large estates in the vicinity of Paris and Meaux.

She was still a little girl (between 7 and 9 years old) when she met two bishops in Nanterre: Germain d'Auxerre (later Saint Germain) and Loup de Troyes. They were travelling to Great Britain: at the request of Pope Celestine I, to fight the Pelagian heresy.

On the edge of the Seine, Nanterre was a convenient stopover on the route to Britain. Saint Germain encountered little Geneviève and being hugely impressed with her he suggested that she dedicate her life to the Lord. After Genevieve agreed Germain told her parents about her decision. In memory of the promise she made, Germain gave Genevieve a coin marked with a cross which was made into a pendant for her to wear. The consecration request took place during mass and  the veil was given to Genevieve. From then on she would lead an existence of prayer and penance, but also continued with her important political and economic functions.

At around 25 years old, her parents being dead, she left to live in Paris with her "spiritual mother" (perhaps her godmother) and succeeded her father at the head of the family estate and in participating in the management of the city. She became a successful businesswoman, owner of rich land which she used to benefit the poorest Parisians, and as a wise politician gradually taking in hand the destinies of the famous city as she rose to become the first Mayor of Paris.

It was the year 451 AD and the great Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. The Goths and the Visigoths and the Vandals had been crossing the Rhine and entering Roman-occupied Gaul for the last forty years. And now came the worst of them all: Attila the Hun, whose ferocious army was the main reason other tribes fled their homes and headed west. Attila the Scourge of God was approaching the walls of Paris.

The men of Paris were getting nervous and started the preparation for abandoning their city but then Ste Genevieve and her nuns came along and beseeched them to stay and pray and promised that if everyone prayed to God for safety then their town would be spared. The Parisians wanted to flee and opposed Geneviève who advised against it. She believed that deserting Paris would deliver it to Attila. Geneviève thought that if the city was defended Attila would bypass the city and she feared that if the people fled they would be defenceless in the open countryside.

Despite the hostility of the Parisians, she gathered a few women to pray to the Lord to protect the city. "Let the men flee, if they want, if they are no longer able to fight. We women will pray to God as long as He hears our supplications, "she said.

Attila went on to Orleans and was inside that city when he heard that the Roman army under Flavius Aëtius (the last great Roman general) had allied with the Visigoths and their combined huge army was headed in their direction. Attila decided to leave Orleans and fight in the open rather then defend the city in a siege. But the Romans and their Visigoth allies defeated the Huns at the battle of Chalons and Attila retreated back across the Rhine and never entered Gaul again.

The troubles for Paris were not over though. The Francs had surrounded the city and their presence cut off the traditional supply routes to the city. Grain was scarce and famine set in. Genevieve took a small fleet of eleven boats down the Seine Arcis-sur-Aube to negotiate a supply. She was received by the Roman tribune Passivus who initally was not keen to send grain to Paris, however, his wife was ill and Genevieve healed the sick woman. Passivus was so grateful that he immediately supplied the necessary wheat for the city and Genevieve returned with it to Paris. According to legend, as they were leaving Arcis, the boats were too heavily laden and began to take on water, threatening to sink. Reaching for the sky, Geneviève implored the help of Christ and the flotilla immediately resumed normal navigation. 

On the road to Senlis, north of Paris, in a public cemetery lay the tomb of Denis the martyr. Genevieve asked that a basilica be built at that place in his honour.

Saint-Denis was one of the seven evangelizers of Gaul in the third century and the first bishop of Paris. He suffered under the persecution of the emperor Decius and, he was beheaded with his companions Éleuthère and Rustique, on the Mont des Martyrs, Mons Martyrium as it was know then which is now the site of the modern Montmartre. Where his original chapel was built became the city of St Denis which is now a suburb of Paris. There was great reluctance to begin the construction dut to the difficulty of supplying construction materials, Geneviève replied to this that she was knew of the availability of essential limestone. Old lime kilns and nearby quarries were then found and reopened thus allowing the start of construction work. During the construction the carpenters ran out of water, Geneviève multiplied the cups of water, allowing the workers to quench their thirst.

Later, Geneviève inspired the construction of the basilica dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, on the future Sainte-Geneviève mountain, which she also sponsored. 

Geneviève had formed a plan to lead Clovis, son of King Childéric, to baptism. She spoke Middle High German which was Clovis' mother tongue, which made it easier. Around 493, when the king married Catholic Clotilde, Geneviève became friends with her and it was thought that they would prepare together for the celebration of baptism by the bishop of Reims, Saint Rémi. Later Clovis asked to be buried near Genevieve, as attested by Grégoire de Tours in 544 in his "history of the Franks". 

The feast day of Saint Simeon The Stylite is on the 5th January while that of Saint Genevieve is on the 3rd. While he was still alive, Saint Simeon knew of Genevieve and when he met a group of Gallic merchants he asked them, when they returned, to ask Genevieve to pray for him. At the time Simeon was 70 and Genevieve just 40. This link between the two was a bridge between the Eastern and Western Christian communities. 

"Geneviève went to the Lord in a good old age, after having lived more than ten times eight years, and she was buried in peace on January 3," wrote her biographer soberly. Her body was placed in a stone sarcophagus, still preserved in Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, in a tomb that Clovis had prepared for his own family. From the second half of the sixth century, St. Geneviève's Mass was celebrated in the Frankish kingdom on this date.

As early as the 6th century, Grégoire de Tours pointed out that miracles occurred on the tomb of Saint Geneviève and that the sick were cured there. It had become common practice to invoke Geneviève against all epidemic diseases and fevers. In a poem published in 1532, the famous Didier Erasme thanked the saint for having cured him of a bout of fever. This reputation came from the miracle of the "ardent". This sickness has been identified as ergotism caused by eating corrupt rye. (Ergotism is a human disease that results from consumption of the ergot body in rye or other grains infected by a parasitic fungus of the genus Claviceps. Also know as Saint Anthony's Fire).

Often, in the Middle Ages, the Parisian population was a victim of this disease. In 1130, the disease caused 14,000 deaths in Paris, nearly 20% of the population at the time. In desperation the Bishop of Senlis arranged for the transfer of the body of Genevieve to the Notre Dame Cathedral. While being transported, three patients who had touched the carriage were instantly healed. The following year, Pope Innocent II, who came to France, decided that a feast would be celebrated in commemoration of the event.

In the archaeological crypt of Notre-Dame is the remains of the "Sainte-Geneviève-des-Ardents" church. Clovis I founded an abbey where Genevieve might minister, and where she herself was later buried. Under the care of the Benedictines, who established a monastery there, the church witnessed numerous miracles wrought at her tomb. As Genevieve was popularly venerated there, the church was rededicated in her name; people eventually enriched the church with their gifts. It was plundered by the Vikings in 847 and was partially rebuilt, but was completed only in 1177. After the old church fell into decay, Louis XV ordered a new church worthy of the patron saint of Paris; he entrusted the Marquis of Marigny with the construction. The marquis gave the commission to his protégé Jacques-Germain Soufflot, who planned a neo-classical design. After Soufflot's death, the church was completed by his pupil, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet.

The Revolution broke out before the new church was dedicated. It was taken over in 1791 by the National Constituent Assembly and renamed the Panthéon, to be a burial place for distinguished Frenchmen. It became an important monument in Paris.

Though Saint Genevieve's relics had been publicly burnt at the Place de Grève in 1793 during the French Revolution, the Panthéon was restored to Catholic purposes in 1821. In 1831 it was secularized again as a national mausoleum, but returned to the Catholic Church in 1852. Though the Communards were said to have dispersed the relics (there is no proof of this allegation, the relics having been burnt in 1793), and some managed to be recovered. In 1885 the Catholic Church reconsecrated the structure to St. Genevieve. 

In the Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (Latin: Congregatio de Causis Sanctorum) is the congregation of the Roman Curia that oversees the complex process that leads to the canonization of saints, passing through the steps of a declaration of "heroic virtues" and beatification. After preparing a case, including the approval of miracles, the case is presented to the Pope, who decides whether or not to proceed with beatification or canonization. This is one of nine Vatican Curial congregations. 

However, Pope John XXIII declared Genevieve, in 1963, patron of the gendarmes. On this occasion, he wrote: "The virgin Saint Geneviève, light of their fatherland, showed herself formerly, as the memory is preserved, the support of the people in grave perils and has not ceased, in eternal glory , to spread benefits on those who pray to her. "It is under the title of" guardians of public order "that the gendarmes can claim her as their patron.

Geneviève is also the patron saint of the city of Nanterre and of the whole diocese of the same name, therefore of the Hauts-de-Seine department. Generous and courageous, her life and her work constitute a fine example for the foundation which bears her name. I fully expect that, in God's good time, the Catholic church will eventually ratify the Sainthood of this truly inspirational woman.