Some believe that God assigns guardian angels not only to individuals but to cities. There is no way of knowing whether the great sophisticated city of Paris is in the concerned custody of an angel. But Paris certainly has a local patron saint to intercede for it: St. Genevieve.
Genevieve was born in Nanterre, four miles from Paris, at the beginning of the Middle Ages. When she was no older than seven, people discerned in her the promise of great things. Around 429, the notable and influential bishop of Auxerre, St. Germain, came through Nanterre and preached to a huge crowd. Little Genevieve was there, and caught his eye. He asked to see her, blessed her, and urged her to promise to live for God alone. Since she had already conceived this desire, Genevieve told him she would. Germain then gave her a medal or coin stamped with a cross to wear about her neck. Then he went his way.
When Genevieve was fifteen, she asked the bishop of Paris to bestow on her the veil of a consecrated virgin. There were no convents in those days, so she lived at home after taking the veil, engaged constantly in acts of self-denial and prayer. After her parents died, she moved to Paris to live with her godmother.
Genevieve’s career of self-improvement brought her griefs as well as graces. The Parisians at first thought she was some sort of “nut”, and they persecuted her as a visionary and a hypocrite. Some even wanted to drown her! But around 448 St. Germain sent his archdeacon to Paris with a gift of blessed bread for Genevieve. Because of the public gesture of confidence in their little fellow citizen, the persecutors decided they had been wrong.
Genevieve had meanwhile shown her interest in the needy of Paris and of several other cities in France. Paris was in special straits in the late 440’s. The Germanic Franks, led by King Childeric, laid siege to Paris and eventually captured it. Genevieve had meanwhile organized a committee to procure food for her starving fellow citizens.
When Childeric took over in Paris, he had the good sense to befriend the young virgin. Though himself a pagan, he spared the lives of many prisoners at her intercession. His successor Clovis, who asked for baptism in 496, showed her the greatest respect.
The Franks had not controlled Paris for many years before they were threatened in 457 by another barbaric tribe, the Huns, led by Attila. As the Hunnic troops approached Paris, Genevieve told the Parisians not to flee the city but to stay. Then she launched a great campaign of prayer. Some cynics doubted her advice and her promise of divine protection. As a matter of fact, when he drew near Paris, Attila decided to detour around it and attack Orleans instead. Thus, the capital was untouched.
It was quite likely Genevieve who persuaded King Clovis to build a church in honor of SS. Peter and Paul. Here the saintly woman was buried after her death around 500. From the Start, Parisians flocked to her tomb and prayed to her, and many miracles were reported. Especially notable were her interventions on behalf of Paris itself, like the cessation of a plague of “burning fever” in 1129 A.D.
In 1764 a new church building was begun on the same site to replace the old dilapidated shrine. Then came the French Revolution. The government took over the church, renaming it the Pantheon, and designated it a national mausoleum. So it remains to the present. Revolutionaries scattered most of the saint’s relics, but November 26 continued to be observed as a feast day commemorating the miracle of 1129.
We may be confident that even today this remarkable Parisian woman keeps a watchful eye on her great city. It may be a worldly place, but everybody, especially every Christian, must be loyal to his or her home town.
–Father Robert F. McNamara