Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Genevieve, or Genovefa, Virgin, Chief Patroness of Paris

[Saint Genevieve]Article

Her father’s name was Severus, and her mother’s Gerontia: she was born about the year 422, at Nanterre, a small village four miles from Paris, near the famous modern stations, or Calvary, adorned with excellent sculptures, representing our Lord’s Passion, on Mount Valerien. When Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, went with Saint Lupus into Britain to oppose the Pelagian heresy, he lay at Nanterre in his way. The inhabitants flocked about them to receive their blessing, and Saint Germanus made them an exhortation, during which he took particular notice of Genevieve, though only seven years of age. After his discourse he inquired for her parents, and addressing himself to them, foretold their daughter’s future sanctity, and said that she would perfectly accomplish the resolution she had taken of serving God, and that others would imitate her example. He then asked Genevieve whether it was not her desire to serve God in a state of perpetual virginity, and to bear no other title than that of a spouse of Jesus Christ. The virgin answered, that this was what she had long desired, and begged that by his blessing she might be from that moment consecrated to God. The holy prelate went to the church of the place, followed by the people, and, during long singing of psalms and prayers, says Constantius, that is, during the recital of None and Vespers, as the author of the life of Saint Genevieve expresses it, he held his hand upon the virgin’s head. After he had supped, he dismissed her, giving a strict charge to her parents to bring her again to him very early the next morning. The father complied with the commission, and Saint Germanus asked Genevieve whether she remembered the promise she had made to God. She said she did, and declared she would, by the divine assistance, faithfully perform it. The bishop gave her a brass medal, on which a cross was engraved, to wear always about her neck, to put her in mind of the consecration she had made of herself to God; and at the same time he charged her never to wear bracelets, or necklaces of pearl, gold or silver, or any other ornaments of vanity. All this she most religiously observed, and considering herself as the spouse of Christ, gave herself up to the most fervent practices of devotion and penance. From the words of Saint Germanus, in his exhortation to Saint Genevieve never to wear jewels, Baillet and some others infer that she must have been a person of quality and fortune: but the ancient Breviary and constant tradition of the place assure us, that her father was a poor shepherd. Adrian, Valois, and Baluze, observe that her most ancient life ought not to be esteemed of irrefragable authority, and that the words of Saint Germanus are not perhaps related with a scrupulous fidelity. The author of her life tells us, that the holy virgin begging one day with great importunity that she might go to the church, her mother struck her on the face, but in punishment lost her sight, which she only recovered, two months after by washing her eyes twice or thrice with water, which her daughter fetched from the well, and upon which she had made the sign of the cross. Hence the people look upon the well at Nanterre as having been blessed by the saint. About fifteen years of age, she was presented to the bishop of Paris to receive the religious veil at his hands, together with two other persons of the same sex. Though she was the youngest of the three, the bishop placed her the first, saying, that heaven had already sanctified her; by which he seems to have alluded to the promise she had already made, in the presence of SS. Germanus and Lupus, of consecrating herself to God. From that time she frequently ate only twice in the week, on Sundays and Thursdays. Her food was barley bread with a few beans. At the age of fifty, by the command of certain bishops, she mitigated this austerity, so far as to allow herself a moderate use of fish and milk. Her prayer was almost continual, and generally attended with a large flow of tears. After the death of her parents she left Nanterre, and settled with her godmother at Paris, but sometimes undertook journeys upon motives of charity, and illustrated the cities of Meaux, Laon, Tours, Orleans, and all other places wherever she went, with miracles and remarkable predictions. God permitted her to meet with some severe trials; for at a certain time all persons indiscriminately seemed to be in a combination against her, and persecuted her under the opprobrious names of visionary, hypocrite, and the like imputations, all tending to asperse her innocency. The arrival of Saint Germanus at Paris, probably on his second journey to Britain, for some time silenced her calumniators; but it was not long ere the storm broke out anew. Her enemies were fully determined to drown her, when the archdeacon of Auxerre arrived with Eulogies, or blessed bread, sent her by Saint Germanus, as a testimony of his particular esteem for her virtues, and a token of communion. This seems to have happened whilst Saint Germanus was absent in Italy in 449, a little before his death. This circumstance, so providentially opportune, converted the prejudices of her calumniators into a singular veneration for her during the remainder of her life. The Franks or French had then possessed themselves of the better part of Gaul, and Childeric, their king, took Paris. During the long blockade of that city, the citizens being extremely distressed by famine, Saint Genevieve, as the author of her life relates, went out at the head of a company who were sent to procure provisions, and brought back from Arcis-sur-Aube and Troyes several boats laden with corn. Nevertheless, Childeric, when he had made himself master of Paris, though always a Pagan, respected Saint Genevieve, and, upon her intercession, spared the lives of many prisoners, and did several other acts of clemency and bounty. Our saint, out of her singular devotion to Saint Dionysius and his companions, the apostles of the country, frequently visited their tombs at the borough of Catulliacum, which many think the borough since called Saint Denys’s. She also excited the zeal of many pious persons to build there a church in honour of Saint Dionysius, which King Dagobert I afterward rebuilt with a stately monastery in 629. Saint Genevieve likewise performed several pilgrimages, in company with other holy virgins, to the shrine of Saint Martin at Tours. These journeys of devotion she sanctified by the exercises of holy recollection and austere penance. King Clovis, who embraced the faith in 496, listened often with deference to the advice of Saint Genevieve, and granted liberty to several captives at her request. Upon the report of the march of Attila with his army of Huns, the Parisians were preparing to abandon their city, but Saint Genevieve persuaded them, in imitation of Judith and Hester, to endeavour to avert the scourge, by fasting, watching, and prayer. Many devout persons of her sex passed many days with her in prayer in the baptistery; from whence the particular devotion to Saint Genevieve which is practised at Saint John-le-rond, the ancient public baptistery of the church of Paris, seems to have taken rise. She assured the people of the protection of heaven, and their deliverance; and though she was long treated by many as an impostor, the event verified the prediction, that barbarian suddenly changing the course of his march, probably by directing it towards Orleans. Our author attributes to Saint Genevieve the first design of the magnificent church which Clovis began to build in honour of SS. Peter and Paul, by the pious counsel of his wife Saint Clotilda, by whom it was finished several years after; for he only laid the foundation a little before his death, which happened in 511. Saint Genevieve died about the same year, probably five weeks after that prince, on the 3d of January, 512, being eighty-nine years old. Some think she died before King Clovis. Prudentius, bishop of Paris, had been buried about the year 409, on the spot where this church was built. Clovis was interred in it; his remains were afterward removed into the middle of the choir, where they were covered with a modern monument of white marble, with an inscription. Saint Clotilda was buried near the steps of the high altar in 545; but her name having been enrolled amongst the saints, her relics were enshrined, and are placed behind the high altar. Those of Saint Alda, the companion of Saint Genevieve, and of Saint Ceraunus, bishop of Paris, are placed in silver shrines on the altar of Saint Clotilda. The tombs of Saint Genevieve and King Clovis were near together. Immediately after the saint was buried, the people raised an oratory of wood over her tomb, as her historian assures us, and this was soon changed into the stately church built under the invocation of SS. Peter and Paul. From this circumstance we gather that her tomb was situated in a part of this church, which was only built after her death. Her tomb, though empty, is still shown in the subterraneous church, or vault, betwixt those of Prudentius, and Saint Ceraunus, bishop of Paris. But her relics were enclosed by Saint Eligius, in a costly shrine, adorned with gold and silver, which he made with his own hands about the year 630, as Saint Owen relates in his life. In 845 these relics, for fear of the Normans, were removed to Atis, and thence to Dravel, where the abbot of the canons kept a tooth for his own church. In 850 they were carried to Marisy, near Ferté-Milon, and five years after brought back to Paris. The author of the original life of Saint Genevieve, concludes it by a description of the basilick which Clovis and Saint Clotilda erected, adorned with a triple portico, in which were painted the histories of the patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and confessors. This church was several times plundered, and at length burnt, by the Normans. When it was rebuilt, soon after the year 856, the relics of Saint Genevieve were brought back. The miracles which were performed there from the time of her burial, rendered this church famous over all France, so that at length it began to be known only by her name. The city of Paris has frequently received sensible proofs of the divine protection, through her intercession. The most famous instance is that called the miracle of Des Ardens, or of the burning fever. In 1129, in the reign of Lewis VI. a pestilential fever, with a violent inward heat, and pains in the bowels, swept off, in a short time, fourteen thousand persons, nor could the art of physicians afford any relief. Stephen, bishop of Paris, with the clergy and people, implored the divine mercy, by fasting and supplications. Yet the distemper began not to abate till the shrine of Saint Genevieve was carried in a solemn procession to the cathedral. During that ceremony many sick persons were cured by touching the shrine, and of all that then lay ill of that distemper in the whole town, only three died, the rest recovered, and no others fell ill. Pope Innocent II. coming to Paris the year following, after having passed a careful scrutiny on the miracle, ordered an annual festival in commemoration of it, on the 26th of November, which is still kept at Paris. A chapel near the cathedral, called anciently Saint Genevieve’s the Little, erected near the house in which she died, afterward from this miracle, though it was wrought not at this chapel, but chiefly at the cathedral, as Le Beuf demonstrates, was called Saint Genevieve Des Ardens, which was demolished in 1747, to make place for the Foundling Hospital. Both before and since that time, it is the custom in extraordinary public calamities, to carry the shrine of Saint Genevieve, accompanied with those of Saint Marcel, Saint Aurea, Saint Lucan, martyr, Saint Landry, Saint Merry, Saint Paxentius, Saint Magloire, and others, in a solemn procession to the cathedral; on which occasion the regular canons of Saint Genevieve walk barefoot, and at the right hand of the chapter of the cathedral, and the abbot walks on the right hand of the archbishop. The present rich shrine of Saint Genevieve was made by the abbot, and the relics enclosed in it in 1242. It is said that one hundred and ninety-three marks of silver and eight of gold, were used in making it; and it is almost covered with precious stones, most of which are the presents of several kings and queens. The crown or cluster of diamonds, which glitters on the top, was given by Queen Mary of Medicis. The shrine is placed behind the choir, upon a fine piece of architecture, supported by four high pillars, two of marble and two of jaspis. See the ancient Life of Saint Genevieve, written by an anonymous author, eighteen years after her death, of which the best edition is given by F. Charpentier, a Genevievan regular canon, in octavo, in 1697. It is interpolated in several editions.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Genevieve, or Genovefa, Virgin, Chief Patroness of Paris”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 13 January 2013. Web. 29 December 2014. <>