Saint of the Day – 3 January – Saint Genevieve (c 419-c 502) Virgin, apostle of prayer and of the poor and sick – Patronages – against plague, against natural disasters, against fever, French security forces (chosen in 1962), Paris, France, Women’s Army Corps. In 451 she led a “prayer novena” that was said to have saved Paris by diverting Attila’s Huns away from the city. When the Germanic king Childeric I besieged the city in 464, she acted as an intermediary between the city and its besiegers, collecting food and convincing Childeric to release his prisoners. Her following and her status as patron saint of Paris were promoted by Clotilde – Princess and Saint (c 474-545), who may have commissioned the writing of her vita.
On his way to combat heresy in Britain, St Germanus of Auxerre (c 378-c 448) made an overnight stop at Nanterre, France. In the crowd that gathered to hear him speak, Germanus spotted Genevieve, a beautiful 7-year-old girl and he foresaw her future holiness. When he asked little St Genevieve if she wanted to dedicate her life to God, she enthusiastically said yes. So he laid hands on her with a blessing, thus launching the spiritual career of one of France’s most admired saints.
St Genevieve was born around the year 420 in the small French village of Nanterre. After both of her parents died, she went to live with her godmother in Paris. She was admired for her piety and works of charity and she practised corporal austerities which included abstaining completely from meat and breaking her fast only twice in the week. Many of her neighbours, filled with jealousy and envy, accused Genevieve of being an impostor and a hypocrite.
At 15, Genevieve formally consecrated herself as a virgin but continued to live as a laywoman. Because of her generous giving to the poor, she became widely known in the vicinity around Paris. At first, however, Genevieve met great hostility. But St Germanus defused it by authorising her with public signs of his support.
Once when the Franks were besieging Paris, Genevieve rescued the city from starvation by leading a convoy of ships up the Seine to Troyes to obtain food. In this selection from her biography, we learn that she had to work a miracle to bring it home safely:
During the return voyage, however, the ships were so buffeted by the wind . . . that the high holds fore and aft in which they had stored the grain tipped over on their sides. And the ships filled with water. Quickly Genovefa, her hands stretched toward heaven, begged Christ for assistance. Immediately the ships were righted. Thu,s through her, our God . . . saved eleven grain-laden ships. . . .
When she returned to Paris, her sole concern was to distribute the grain to all according to their needs . She made it her first priority to provide a whole loaf to those whose strength had been sapped by hunger. Thus, when her servant girls went to the ovens they would often find only part of the bread they had baked. . . . But it was soon clear who had taken the bread from the ovens for they noticed the needy carrying loaves throughout the city and heard them magnifying and blessing the name of Genevieve. For she put her hopes not in what is seen but in what is not seen. For she knew the Prophet spoke truly who said: “Whoever is kind to the poor is lending to God” (Proverbs 19:17). For through a revelation of the Holy Spirit she had once been shown that land, where those who lend their treasure to the poor expect to find it again. And for this reason, she was accustomed to weep and pray incessantly, for she knew that as long as she was in the flesh she was exiled from the Lord.
From that time Genevieve enjoyed a heroine’s status and used her influence and wonders on the city’s behalf. For example, she persuaded Childeric, who had conquered Paris, to release many captives. And in 451, when Attila the Hun was advancing on the city, she got the populace to pray and fast for their safety. The invader changed his course and Paris was spared. She also became a trusted adviser to Clovis, the king of the Franks.
St Genevieve had a particular devotion to St Denis (died 3rd century) and wished to erect a chapel in his honour to house his relics. Around the year 475 Genevieve purchased some land at the site of the saint’s burial where a shrine was built. This small chapel became a famous place of pilgrimage during the fifth and sixth centuries.
When Genevieve died around 500, she was buried in the church of Sts Peter and Paul at Paris. So many miracles occurred through her intercession there that it became a pilgrimage spot and came to be called St Genevieve.
The King, Clovis, founded an abbey for St Genevieve, where she was later re-interred. Under the care of the Benedictines, who established a monastery there, the church witnessed numerous miracles wrought at her tomb. In the year 1129, the city was saved from an epidemic, the relics of St Genevieve were carried in a public procession.
About 1619 Louis XIII named Cardinal François de La Rochefoucauld abbot of Saint Genevieve’s. The canons had been lax and the cardinal selected Charles Faure to reform them. This holy man was born in 1594 and entered the canons regular at Senlis. He was remarkable for his piety and, when ordained, succeeded after a hard struggle in reforming the abbey. Many of the houses of the canons regular adopted his reform. In 1634, he and a dozen companions took charge of Saint-Geneviève-du-Mont of Paris. This became the mother-house of a new congregation, the Canons Regular of St Genevieve, which spread widely over France.