Who feels like home to you? When you go into the hardware store in your hometown, is George always at the counter? Is it memories of your grandmother on the porch with a bowl of peas to shell? Is it the announcer at the ballpark, who made each game memorable? Is it the yia-yia who stands in the same corner every week in church, praying with gentle determination for the new generation darting behind her skirts?
For any devout Parisian, St. Genevieve is their grandmother, guarding over their city like a broody hen. Throughout time and in nearly every place Orthodox Christianity has put down roots, there are saints who join themselves with a place as firmly as the bedrock. Some are in the world, either in aristocracy or as ordinary folk, and some take the monastic tonsure, as St. Genevieve. They know in their hearts, that come what may, their service to God is to love and serve Him and His people in this place, in life and in their repose.
St. Genevieve is a foundational saint in the Church of northern France, being less than two generations removed from the first bishop and martyr of Paris, St. Denis (Dionysius). Her venerable life spanned the most tumultuous years of the post-Roman era, from 419 – 512. Born to Christian parents, she was dedicated at a young age to Christ through the blessing of Bishop St. Germain, who laid his hand on her head when she was eight and asked if she wished to consecrate herself to which she gave her assent. Her mother, however, upon learning of this, became very angry and struck Genevieve and went immediately blind. Only when Genevieve forgave her mother and prayed, did the woman regain her sight.
When she was fifteen, Genevieve and several other young women presented themselves to the Bishop of Paris to receive their tonsure. The Bishop, instead of tonsuring the most senior of the women, began with Genevieve.The women dwelt with Genevieve at her grandmother’s spacious house in Paris, thus beginning the monastic tradition in the city. She was known to only eat twice a week and to pray during the night. She continued these ascetic labors until old age and infirmity decreased her austerity. Word spread of her miracles and asceticism so that even St. Symeon the Stylite heard of her exploits.
St. Genevieve worked relentlessly and bravely for the well-being and safety of her people. In 451, Attila the Hun threatened invasion of Paris. St. Genevieve and St. Germain’s deacon persuaded the Parisians to not flee the city but to pray. It was claimed that she took a torch and her sisters to the city walls as a witness and the would-be invaders turned away soon after. Again, in 464, Childeric besieged and blockaded the city. St. Genevieve passed through enemy lines untouched and brought in grain for the people. She repeatedly reasoned with both Childeric and with Clovis for peace, with the latter eventually building an abbey for Genevieve and her sisters.
Another way St. Genevieve showed devotion to the Church in France was through building the first chapel dedicated to St. Denis and honoring other Gaulic saints. The Bishop objected to the idea since there was no more limestone left in the nearest quarry. Genevieve told the Bishop that this was not so and the chapel should be built. A few days later, the deacons overheard shepherds at the bridge saying they had found another source of limestone. Genevieve and her sisters also made pilgrimages to Tours to venerate the relics of St. Martin the Wonderworker.
Her earthly pilgrimage ended in her repose in 512, at around age 93. This is not the end of her ministry to the Church in Paris. Her relics were kept in the Basilica of St. Denis until the French revolutionaries burned and dumped them into the Seine in 1793. Afterwards, other remains were gathered together from various churches and interred at Saint Etienne du Mont. Her feast day is January 3rd.
The following is a story related from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, regarding how St. Genevieve welcomed Russian emigres to Paris and asked for their intercession and veneration:
In one of our poorest and smallest communities in Paris a woman saw a dream that she was somewhere in the thickets near a wood, that she was impelled to look at what there was within it; she found a gate, walked further and was confronted with the statue of a woman, who was holding in her hands a book and a sheaf of wheat, and this woman looked at her in sorrow and said: How is it that the people of my city, who share my faith pay me no honour. The woman awoke, there was no name she could attach to the vision; she spoke of it, but she had no answer, until a few weeks later, going to a small place not far from Paris, called Sainte Genevieve des Bois, she recognised the place of her dream, the thicket; she entered it, found a gate and was confronted with the same statue, but this time an inscription revealed to her it was Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris together with Saint Denis. And she brought the news, and in our small community we began to pray to her, later we created a parish in her name, and this was the beginning of French Orthodoxy.
This opened, our minds, and our hearts to something which we had overlooked, because having lost our Country and all we loved we had a tendency to be (ingrained) in our Russian life, remembering only our Russian ancestry, both spiritual and material, the country we loved, the people who were our kin, and the saints who were the glory of Russia. And now we suddenly became aware that we had come into the West, not in a part of the world that was strange and alien to us but in a part of the world which for nearly a thousand years had shared with us the same faith, the same plenitude of oneness, the same joy of belonging together with all the Christian world. We began then to pay attention to the saints of the West and. in all countries now this awareness has grown and when we come to a country of the Western world., we know that beyond a thousand years of separation we meet the memory, the prayers, the names and the presence of those Saints of Orthodoxy who are and were its glory, its resplendence before God, we come to our own people; and this is something which is so wonderful and for which we are so deeply grateful. We are no strangers in this land, thousands and thousands of men and women have shared our faith; we are strangers in no land because the oneness of the Church hundreds of years ago unbroken make us the kin of those who are their resplendence and their glory.
Many of my readers are first generation Orthodox Christians, either in their place or in their families or both. Some of us have been in the founding stages of mission parishes and seen them grow into consecrated churches. I fit into both categories. My onus is, “My faithfulness contributes to this foundation and will it be strong enough for future generations to build upon?” This is a difficult thing to ponder as ‘missionaries’, when what we see now are temporary buildings, small bank accounts, and every precious convert to shepherd.
Those who live in places where Orthodoxy has deep roots, even to the beginning of the Church, your question may be framed, “Will the faith endure after me, with what I do now?” Even the mightiest oak can fall in the next storm.
We all have the same responsibility of Christians at any time and any place – the faith endures because of us! Perhaps we can be those saints who loved their small patch of land and people so deeply that our memory calls out to the future and welcomes in those who are bereft of both.
Met. Anthony’s address regarding St. Genevieve: