Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 19, 2005
St. Genevieve's blessing revered
Original Canadian roots flourish in Missouri parish
St. Genevieve – January 3
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Sainte Genevieve, Mo.
They came down on the great flow of the Mississippi from Canada, following the trailblazing duo of Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet almost 100 years before, fleeing rigorous northern winters to establish homesteads in a more moderate climate.
Fleeing the cold
By the 1750s, they had founded a riverside settlement and church named to honour Ste-Genevieve, the great fifth century patron of the city of Paris. Later, others also seeking more temperate conditions, travelled up the river from the humid Gulf Coast to join their francophone relatives in forming one of the earliest communities on the Mid-Mississippi.
Together they farmed the rich bottom lands, traded and prospered despite having to relocate to avoid river flooding. They weathered the American Revolution and the Civil War and took changes in government in stride - French, Spanish, British - to become an important river port.
In 1794, their original, 35-year-old log church was moved to the present church site, but by 1850 there were 900 parishioners and a later 1837 stone edifice had been outgrown.
Then the present red brick church was dedicated in 1880 largely financed by Mrs. Odile Valle, a family name prominent to this day in today's town of some 4500 residents. Enlargement in 1911 brought the church to its present configuration.
High above the main church entrance the figure of its patron occupies a niche in the attractive fa‡ade. This is Genevieve, portrayed here as a peasant girl, dressed simply and holding a distaff, symbol of the domestic wool-spinner.
With a sheep at her feet, this sculpture hardly suggests the woman of means who became famous as the saviour of Paris by providing quantities of grain for a starving, besieged populace.
This "newer" image is thought to have evolved because of the saint's association with bread and feeding the hungry and today, her January feast day is celebrated here and elsewhere with the distribution of her "little breads."
Genevieve is also venerated in Paris where her intercession is believed to have saved the city from 12th century epidemics and floods.
Visitors attending 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass in the large church may find themselves rubbing shoulders with descendants of the pioneers and enjoying the uplifting sounds of an inspired mixed choir, still using a traditional loft at the rear of the church.
Sainte-Genevieve's is an active parish with affiliated schools and many lay organizations. There are two daily and four weekend Eucharistic celebrations here.
What makes the church unusual for a modern Catholic house of worship are the statues. Images of saints proliferate all around the interior of Sainte-Genevieve.
Fortunately, a little brochure is available in the church that identifies all 49 of them. Prominent at her altar in the south transept chapel is a statue, a conventional, earlier portrayal of the parish patron.
Here she is clothed as an urban lady, a person of some status. She holds a candle, said to have been blown out by the devil, then re-lit by an angel.
A window in the chapel, conversely shows the other aspect of the saint, dressed as a peasant with her lighted candle.
Mass ended, many of the large congregation will search out breakfast or brunch at nearby eateries, the historic Sainte-Genevieve Hotel for example, where picture windows permit leisurely people watching while dining.
Also, because of its central location, the church allows people to conveniently visit the several historic French colonial homes in the vicinity. These are a tangible reminder that the people of Sainte-Genevieve cherish their traditions and retain a sense of their old Canadian culture.