Saturday, 3 January 2009

Excellent Women: St Geneviève

While we may blog about whatever acts of religious devotion we have most recently attended, in the 17th century, Madame de Sévigné could only write letters, and being unable to provide photos from every possible angle, she had to rely on extremely detailed description. She writes to her daughter about the procession of the relics of St Geneviève held yearly in Paris to protect the city from harm:

"Do you know that this procession is considered a very fine sight. It is attended by all the religious orders, in their respective habits, the curates of the several parishes, and all the canons of Notre-Dame, preceded by the archbishop of Paris in his pontificals, and on foot, giving his benediction to the right and left as he goes, till he comes to the cathedral; I should have said to the left only, for the Abbe de St. Geneviève marches on the right, barefoot, and preceded by a hundred and fifty monks, barefoot also; the cross and mitre are borne before him, like the archbishop, and he gives his benedictions in the same manner, but with great apparent devotion, humility, and fasting, and an air of penitence, which show that he is to say mass at Notre-Dame. The parliament, in their red robes, and the principal companies follow the shrine of the saint, which glitters with precious stones, and is carried by twenty men clad in white, and barefoot. The provost of the merchants, and four counselors, are left as hostages at the Church of St. Geneviève, for the return of this precious treasure. You will ask me, perhaps, why the shrine was exposed. It was to put a stop to the continual rains we have had, and to obtain warm and dry weather, which happened at the very time they were making preparations for the procession, which, as it was intended to obtain for us all kinds of blessings, I presume we owe his majesty's return, who is expected here on Sunday next." Letter XLIII 19 July 1675.

St Geneviève is considered to be one of the patron saints of the city of Paris. As a child, St Germain picked her out as someone who would lead a life of great sanctity. At the age of 16, she went to live with her godmother in Paris where she attracted a great deal of criticism for her austerity, works of charity and claims of visions and prophecies. But St Germain refused to believe her detractors, and as Bishop of Paris, he appointed her to look after the welfare of virgins dedicated to God in the city.
But, of course, she didn't confine her activities solely to protecting virgins: she saved Paris from destruction at least twice while alive. When Attila the Hun was preparing to attack, she exhorted the citizens to trust in God and do penance. Attila and his forces turned away towards Orleans and so Paris was spared. Thirteen years later, the city was again besieged, this time by Childeric. Geneviève passed through the enemy lines in a boat to Troyes to fetch grain and save the inhabitants from starvation, as well as negotiating with Childeric for the welfare of prisoners of war.

And while dead, it seems she still protects the city. She was credited with saving Paris from flooding in 834 and an epidemic of ergot poisoning in 1129, which actually ceased during a procession of her relics. Many other miracles were recorded at her tomb in the Church of St Geneviève. Unfortunately, the relics were burnt by revolutionaries in 1793 so the procession that Madame de Sévigné describes can no longer take place.

The church however was spared. Louis XV had vowed to rebuild it with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris, and the work was finished just in time for the revolution. So, the revolutionary government decided that the spectacular building was the perfect location for their "temple to the great intellectuals of France" and it became the Panthéon. Quite possibly they never noticed the irony of creating a shrine to the leading men of the new regime next to the desecrated tomb of the patron saint and saviour of the city. In 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman to be buried in the Panthéon in her own right and, as far as I can discover, remains the only one. But it gives me some satisfaction to think that, actually, St Geneviève got there first of all!

Sainte Geneviève, qui rétablissiez la paix entre les ennemis, priez pour nous.


  1. The shrine of Saint Genevieve, which contains her remaining relics, can still be seen at the nearby Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. John Paul II prayed there during his visit to France.

    And now the Pantheon is not only a burial place, but it contains a wonderful series of life-size paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, all dedicated to Paris's patroness.

  2. Thanks for the information. I'm glad that some of the relics survived and that they can still be seen. And the paintings sound splendid too.