“St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
I’m over here
Beneath this tree. . . .”
For over thirty years, all I’ve known about St. Genevieve is that she was referenced in a song from the Broadway musical Camelot. I was in Middle School, channel surfing, and one of the pay channels, probably HBO, featured a filmed version of the stage play on repeat all month. The first few times I’d bypassed it with a teenager’s disdain of musicals, but later I must have caught a scene with knights and decided it was cool. Borrowed the album—yes, yinyl—from the public library. Learned all the songs. Never once wondered who St. Genevieve was.
In November 2015, St. Genevieve was all over my Facebook feed in the wake of the terrorism attacks in Paris; my religious friends prayed she would heal and protect her city. I still didn’t give her much thought.
This is what I’ve learned recently:
St. Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. She was born ~422 in Nanterre, a region a short distance outside of Paris. As a child she was blessed by a bishop, reportedly St. Germain of Auxerre who was traveling to Britain to refute the Pelagians; he encouraged Genevieve to pursue piety and a life dedicated to God. As a nun in Paris, St. Symeon the Stylite corresponded with her. She was known for her teachings, for her charity and fasting, and for working miracles. Long after her death, in 1129, an outbreak of the Plague in Paris stopped after a procession was made in her honor.
St. Geneviève watching over the sleeping city of Paris / Sainte Geneviève veillant sur Paris endormi; Painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, French, ~1824-1898
I certainly don’t hold negligent my public school education for failing to mention her; I understand the importance of teaching history without indoctrination. In 7th Grade we learned that such a thing called the Byzantine Empire existed—barely—and were remotely introduced to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne (although what exactly they did or why they were important wasn’t stressed.) We learned that generic “barbarians” sacked Rome. (What more detail do you need to offer pre-teens, practically barbarians themselves?) Somewhere along the way, outside of my history classes, I learned about history’s great baddies: Attilla the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, Genghis Khan. (A Listverse article ranks Attila as #2 and Genghis as #1 worst all-time ancient history villains.)
Medieval painting of Huns attacking a city.
So back in 451, Attila “the Scourge of God,” unable to conquer the thick walls of Constantinople, turns to the Western Roman Empire instead. (Sidenote: Emperor Theodosius II built his double walls of Constantinople specifically to keep out Attila—although first he paid Attila tribute.) Attila crosses then-Gaul, closes in on Paris, and St. Genevieve starts to pray.
Map courtesy of Wikipedia
In one version, St. Genevieve criticizes the cowardly men of Paris who had wanted to flee, and emboldens them to stay and fight. In another, she and her nun sisters pray and fast. Perhaps a little of both are true. Either way, Attila and his armies turn away. In June 451, Attila is defeated—the one defeat of his career—at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, somewhere in Gaul. (Wikipedia tells us that the Catalaunian Plains are near Champagne-Ardenne in the northeastern part of present-day France.)
The Epistle of James says that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), a verse I’ve long believed, even when I didn’t understand it or know what righteousness is. This much I know:
St. Genevieve the unknown-to-me defeated Attila-the-effing-Hun!, the #2 villain and conqueror of the ancient world, and I was robbed of the inspiration of her example by an anti-hagiography Protestant upbringing.
Dearest well-meaning Protestants, sweet brothers and sisters, do you even know the legacy you’ve jettisoned?
“One [he] can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” — St. Cyprian of Carthage.
Evie Peoples at Giant’s Causeway, No. Ireland. Photo by Anna Love via Facebook. The Giant’s Causeway is one of my favorite places in the world. I didn’t know Evie personally, but this is how I would like to remember her.
This article is offered in remembrance of Evie Peoples, ~1997-2017. Memory Eternal. Rest in Peace.
St. Genevieve of Paris, pray for us, and for all who bear your name.
St. Genevieve; Painting ~1500-1599; from the Carnavalet Museum in the Netherlands
Resources / Further Reading
8 Things You Might Not Know About Attila the Hun from the History Channel /History.com
Attila the Hun from Ancient History Encyclopedia
Attila the Hun from Biography.com
Genevieve of Paris from Orthodox Wiki
St. Genevieve from The Catholic Encyclopedia
Venerable Genevieve of Paris from The Orthodox Church in America