I have to admit that St Genevieve of Paris holds a special place in my heart. She is one of a very small collection of saints outside my chosen study area who resonate with me for one reason or another. I think there is a good chance that St Genevieve (423-502) was the first non-biblical saint that I became conscious of. This is for a completely non-religious reason… the town of Ste. Genevieve Missouri (called “St Gen” locally) was an important marker on my family’s trips to visit my great grandparents house in southern Missouri. If I recall correctly, we crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri at the old bridge at Ste. Genevieve, and then traveled further south to Cape Girardeau, and then we were really close. It was the longest trip I can recall when I was really little, younger than five years old, and great grandparents always have a special place in the life of a child. Those old French names had an embedded sense of history in a regional community of primarily German and old stock American ancestry. For me, “St Genevieve” always brought to mind the saint as much or probably more than the town, perhaps because we rarely actually stopped in the town. It was a signpost on the highway and where we crossed that really big river.
So as I was thinking of what to write for this post, it occurred to me that the only other French saint that really resonates with me is Joan of Arc and how much Genevieve and Joan have in common. First, they are both non-royal and although Genevieve’s family is not well known (and may have been aristocratic) her family did not play a role in her promotion as a saint. Both the Virgin of Paris and the Maid of Orleans were dedicated religious women, but neither had a typical religious career. Neither of them were cloistered or a founder of an enduring monastery. Both of them defined their own way of religious life on their terms. Both of them won early improbable support from local leaders, in Genevieve’s case that would be Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. Both saved their people by military successes: Joan in the relief of Orleans and elsewhere and Genevieve in her reputed turning of Attila the Hun from devastating Paris and obtaining relief for the people besieged by Frankish King Childeric. Of all the female saints, it seems to me that Genevieve is the best forerunner for Joan.
Unlike Joan, Genevieve lived a good long life of 80 years, full of healing miracles and church building. She builds the Cathedral of St. Denis and had won over the Frankish kings Childeric and his son King Clovis I. Clovis’ queen St Clothild insured that Genevieve was buried with honor in Clovis’ new church in Paris, later renamed for St. Genevieve, and there is reason to believe that St. Clothild had the Life of Genovefa written in about 520, 18 years after Genevieve’s death.
Life of Genovefa in Jo Ann McNamara & John Halborg with E.G. Whatley , ed and trans. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Duke UP, 1992.
Forthcoming in 2008:
Lisa Bitel’s Landscape of Two Saints, a book on the cults of St. Genevieve of Paris and St Bridget of Ireland.