Geneviève (c. 422–512)

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Geneviève (c. 422–512)

Patron saint of Paris. Name variations: Genevieve; Genevieve of Paris; Genovefa, Genovefae. Born atNanterre (some sources claim Montriere), near Paris, between 420 and 423, most sources cite 422; died in Paris on January 3, 512; daughter of peasants, Severus and Gerontia.

According to popular tradition, Geneviève was the daughter of the peasants Severus and Gerontia , who lived in Nanterre, near Paris. She was remarkable for her piety and humility at a very young age and soon devoted herself to a life of holiness and purity. Having attracted the attention of St. Germanicus, Geneviève entered a convent at age seven and took the veil at age fifteen. Two years later, with her parents dead, she moved to Paris to be with her godmother in partial seclusion. Though she endured the scoffing of nonbelievers and, on one occasion, was only saved from drowning by the intervention of Germanicus, it is written that her active charity, and the extraordinary reputation for sanctity which she acquired, won for her a certain reverence, not just from the religiously minded, but even from the unconverted and the theologically indifferent.

Geneviève lived in a time of upheaval, during the waning days of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Frankish monarchy. In 451, when Attila and his Huns swept into Gaul, pillaging, raping and burning in a wide swath of destruction, Geneviève is credited with stopping a mass exodus of Parisians through her prayers and encouragement. She prompted the people of the city to trust in God and urged them to do works of penance, adding that if they did so the town would be spared. "The women let themselves be persuaded easily enough," wrote her chronicler in Vita sanctae Genovefae. "As for the husbands, she repeated to them that they had nothing to gain by flight; the places where they were counting on refuge were surely devastated, while Paris would certainly be preserved." Her exhortations prevailed, the citizens recovered their calm, and her words were prophetic. Leaving Paris untouched, Attila and his hordes moved toward Orléans where he met and was eventually defeated by the combined forces of Aetius, a Roman, and Theodoric, king of the Visigoths.

Years later, when Childeric, the pagan king of the Franks, besieged the city, Geneviève, with fellow religious women, set out on an expedition for the relief of the starving people and successfully brought back boats laden with corn from Arcis-sur-Aube and Troyes. By urging the Parisians to resist the power of Childeric, Geneviève earned his respect and successfully interceded with him for the lives of many of his prisoners.

When Childeric's son Clovis I became king, he embraced the Christian faith with the encouragement of his wife Clotilda , around 496 or 497. Clovis also "granted liberty to several captives" at Geneviève's request, as his admiration for her was great. Saint Geneviève is also credited with the first designs for the magnificent church begun by Clovis. When Clovis died in 511, he was interred in Paris, setting a precedent and presaging the importance of that city in the future history of France. Geneviève died the following year, at age 90. When the church was completed by Clotilda, both Clovis and Geneviève were interred within the structure, a building for which they had done much. The numerous miracles wrought at Geneviève's tomb would eventually cause the name to be changed to the Church of St. Geneviève.

In 847, the church was plundered by the Normans but was partially restored in 1177. In 1764, Louis XV erected a new edifice in Geneviève's honor upon the supposed site of her tomb; it contains the famous murals of the saint, in several wall panels, by Puvis de Chavannes. In 1793, during the French Revolution, the government converted this church into the Panthéon, where busts of the famous of France are enshrined. St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, is the subject of many popular and poetical legends. Her feast day is January 3.