The Feast of Sainte Geneviève is held yearly on January 3rd. I am not a Catholic, nor christian, so you might be wondering why in the world I would have a blog post about the Feast of some saint. The answer is simple: Sainte Geneviève is the patron saint of Paris, and my surname (Gavit from Gavet from Gavey) is derived from the female name Genevieve, and it is extremely rare for a surname to evolve from a female name.
She was born around 422 in or near Nanterre, France. On the death of her parents she moved to Paris, where she was noted for her piety and acts of charity. She had numerous prophetic visions and is said to have predicted the invasion of the Huns. When Attila threatened Paris in 451, she persuaded the inhabitants to remain and pray, assuring them that the attack would be inconsequential and that they had the protection of heaven. Attila’s army went on to Orléans instead, and was defeated there. There are many speculations as to why Attila changed course, almost all of them have more credibility than the people of Paris praying for the diversion. Geneviève is reported to have had great influence over King Childeric I of the Salian Franks and, in 460, to have had a church built over the tomb of St. Denis, a patron saint of France.
She died around 500 in Paris, France, and was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, popularly known as the Church of Sainte-Geneviève. During the French Revolution her body was burned on the Place de Grève; the relics were enshrined in the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, where they still attract pilgrims. She is often depicted with a loaf of bread to represent her generosity.
After the old church fell into decay, Louis XV ordered a new church worthy of the patron saint of Paris; he entrusted the Marquis of Marigny with the construction. The marquis gave the commission to his protégé Jacques-Germain Soufflot, who planned a neo-classical design. After Soufflot’s death, the church was completed by his pupil, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet.
The Revolution broke out before the new church was dedicated. It was taken over in 1791 by the National Constituent Assembly and renamed the Panthéon, to be a burial place for distinguished Frenchmen. It became an important monument in Paris.
Though Saint Genevieve’s relics had been publicly burnt at the Place de Grève in 1793 during the French Revolution, the Panthéon was restored to Catholic purposes in 1821. In 1831 it was secularized again as a national mausoleum, but returned to the Catholic Church in 1852. In 1885 the Catholic Church reconsecrated the structure to St. Geneviève.
If you are in Paris there are three things you must see in honor of Sainte Geneviève:
1. The statue de Sainte Geneviève on the pont de la tournelle created by Paul Landowki
2. The statue of Sainte Geneviève in the Jardin de Luxembourg
3. Le Panthéon
I still need to do more intense research to trace my family line back further than the 1400’s, but as I said before my surname Gavit is derived from the french Gavey. It is unusual in that it is derived from a female rather than a male personal name – Geva, a short form of Genevieve.