Perched upon the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement in the shadow of the Panthéon. Like so many churches in Paris, this one is steeped in history and its story can't easily be told without knowing the story of Sainte-Geneviève, the Patron Saint of Paris.
Born in Nanterre, not far from Paris around 422, Geneviève dedicated her life to Christianity from a very early age. Her parents died when she was young and after their death she moved to Paris.
In 451 as Atilla and the Huns were preparing to attack Paris, Geneviève urged the citizens of Paris to pray rather than to flee and it's said that their prayers caused Atilla and his troops to attack the city of Orléans instead. Later, during a siege of Paris in 464, she brought grain to the starving Parisians. She performed many other acts of kindness during her life.
Geneviève asked for a church to be built to honor the saints Peter and Paul. King Clovis complied with her request, and later the church was dedicated to her and renamed the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève.
As is the case with many other churches, the current church was reconstructed from an earlier church on the site. By 1222, the abbey had outgrown the growing population of the area so Pope Honorius III authorized a reconstruction, this time dedicating it to Saint-Etienne who was one of the principal saints of Paris. At the end of the 15th century a new church was built adjacent to the abbey, however the construction wasn't complete until the beginning of the 17th century. Because the construction spanned so many years, the current building represents Gothic, Gothic Flamboyant and Renaissance architecture.
King Clovis and his wife Clotilde were buried in the church along with Sainte-Geneviève who died in 512. In 1793, during the French Revolution, Geneviève's remains were burned at the Place de Grève (now the Hôtel de Ville). What remained of her relics are entombed in the church.
The French celebrate her feast day on January 3rd.
Read about her statue at Pont de la Tournelle and why she's not facing Notre Dame Cathedral in our post about l'IIe Saint-Louis.
The Church Today
As seen from the dome of the Panthéon.
The carving at the front of the church is beautiful. This is the Martyrdom of St. Stephen above the main door.
The inside of the church is equally impressive.
The rood screen was built to separate the nave of the church from the alter. They were usually made of wood, however this one - the only surviving one in Paris - was made of stone and is elaborately and beautifully carved.
The magnificent organ was installed in 1636 and has been rebuilt several times since then.
The pulpit is equally exquisite. It is held up by Samson and contains seven females who represent cardinal and theological virtues.
La Mise au tombeau de Christ.
The Virgin Mary being comforted by Saint John.
Some of the beautiful stained glass windows.
I was there just as a midday service began.
For those who have seen Woody Allen's 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, these are the steps from which the main character, Gil Pender, is transported back to Hemingway's Paris in the 1920's.
There are about 200 churches scattered throughout Paris. They provide a wealth of information about the history of Paris in particular and France in general and they're a great destination on a rainy day - or any day.
➜ Top Tips
The closest métro is Cardinal Lemoine (line 10).
While you're there, be sure to visit the Panthéon, just steps away, and the historic streets of the 5th arrondissement immediately around the church.
Set aside plenty of time to stroll down rue Descartes to Place de la Contrescarpe, then continue heading south on rue Mouffetard.