When you walk around Paris, you may notice that many of the neighborhoods and buildings bear the names of local saints. The saints of Paris date back through the centuries, from the time when the city was just beginning to adopt Christianity.
Paris officially has three patron saints, Saint Denis, Saint Genevieve, and Saint Marcel. In addition, there is Saint Germain who is the patron saint of the Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Each made a mark on the city, with stories that continue to touch the devout and the non-religious. Even today, Toussaints (All Saints’ day) is an official holiday across Paris and France.
So let’s find out more about the patron saints of Paris and their history, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Saint Denis (3rd century)
Saint Denis was the Bishop of Paris in the 3rd century. His name is sometimes written as “Denys” It is not known exactly when he was born or when he died. He is venerated in the Catholic Church as the patron saint of France and Paris and is accounted one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
The 6th century historian Gregory of Tours states that Denis was bishop of the Parisii and was persecuted by Roman Emperor Decius and beheaded by a sword.
Local tradition holds that Saint Denis then carried his own head up the hill before he died. As such, statues of him are often depicted holding his head in his arms.
For Christian pilgrims and the devout, the name Montmartre comes from the legend of Saint Denis, who was beheaded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, along with his companions Saint Rustique and Saint Éleuthère. The name became “‘Mont des Martyrs” or “mountain of martys”, and then Montmartre.
He remains one of the most famous saints in France, with the city of Saint-Denis is named after him just north of Paris. In addition, the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis is one of the most famous churches and cathedrals in France.
2. Sainte Genevieve (419 – 512)
During the 5th century, the Roman empire was gradually decreasing in influence due to the increasing Frankish invasions (a Germanic tribe). At the time, lived an ordinary woman from Nanterre, called Genevieve who saw God and became a nun at 15. She would slowly become renowned for her piety and her visions.
In 451 AD, the city was threatened by the army of Attila the Hun, which had pillaged Treves, Metz and Reims. Parisians were planning to abandon the city, but they were persuaded to resist by Geneviève who led a prayer-marathon to divert the Hun army.
When the Huns diverted to Orléans instead, Geneviève was proclaimed a heroine. During subsequent attacks and sieges, it was Geneviève who would negotiate between the armies, looking out for the people of Paris.
She would go on to counsel Clovis I, the first King of France to convert to Christianity and make Paris his base. Around the year 475 AD, it is believed that it was Saint Genevieve who purchased some land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle which became the Basilica Saint-Denis.
Cannonized after her death, Saint Genevieve is even today considered the protectrice of Paris.
The Panthéon in Paris was originally intended to be a temple dedicated to her. While the Pantheon ended up being converted into a tribute for the great thinkers and visionaries of France, there is a church dedicated to her in Paris.
Located on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève next to the Panthéon, is the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church which replaced an earlier church in the 5th century. It is here that Sainte Geneviève was reburied.
According to tradition, Saint Geneviève used to come there to pray and taking a path that became rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève. There are statues of her in several locations around Paris, including one in the city’s town hall.
3. Saint Marcel (2nd century)
Saint Marcel was the 9th Bishop of Paris during the 2nd century. He is said to have been born in Paris, on the Île de la Cité to a humble family.
As recounted by 6th century historian Venance Fortunat, the legend of Saint Marcel says he was able to turn water into wine or seize a red-hot iron without burning himself. He is also said to have calmed an ox (or a bull) that had escaped from his slaughterhouse.
Unlike Saint Denis, Saint Marcel did not die a martyr. So the case to make him a saint hinged on the legend of him defeating a dragon that was terrorizing Paris.
4. Saint Germain de Paris (496-576)
Saint Germain de Paris who also is sometimes called “Germain d’Autun” to distinguish him from Germain d’Auxerre is a saint who lived in the 6th century.
It is after him that the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement is named after, along with one of the big churches in Paris, the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He was appointed bishop of Paris in 555 under the reign of Childebert Ier.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about Paris. A bientôt!