Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is not just yet another Gothic church. It contains the shrine of St. Geneviève, the patroness of Paris, and has the last remaining rood screen in the city. Besides, according to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it’s the place to go when you wish to time travel: it was there that the protagonist awaited his taxi to the 1920s.
As the burial place of the much revered St. Geneviève and an abbey formed in her name, this area held religious significance as early as the 6th century. The abundance of pilgrims, however, necessitated a larger edifice, and the current church was erected between 1492 and 1626.
The church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont originated in the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, founded by Clovis I where the saint had been buried in the 6th century. She was credited with having saved the city from Attila the Hun in 451 by the power of her prayer. This won her the eternal gratitude of worshippers and the abbey became a popular destination of pilgrimages. However, the church on site, devoted to the Virgin Mary, then to St. John the Apostle, was too small to accommodate all the faithful. In 1222, Pope Honorius III authorized the establishment of an autonomous church, one devoted to St. Etienne, then the patron saint of the old cathedral of Paris.
Soon the church proved too small to accommodate all the parishioners: the Sorbonne and many colleges were located on the territory of the parish. It was enlarged in 1328, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that a complete reconstruction was necessary. In 1492, the monks Génovéfains donated a portion of their land for the construction of the new church.
This involved several steps. Under the direction of architect Stephen Viguier, the apse and the bell tower was sketched in 1494 and the first two bells were cast in 1500. The choir in the flamboyant Gothic style was completed in 1537. The loft was built around 1530-1535. In 1541, Guy, Bishop of Megara, blessed the altars in the chapels of the apse. The same year, the parish commissioned windows and statues from Parisian artisans. The Renaissance nave was not completed before 1584. The first stone of the facade was laid in 1610 by Marguerite de Valois.
The church was consecrated in 1626 by Jean-François de Gondi, the first archbishop of Paris. Nevertheless, developments continued: soon the organ and a new pulpit were installed.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont enjoyed great prestige. On specific occasions, the shrine of St. Geneviève was ceremoniously carried to Notre-Dame and subsequently returned to Saint-Etienne. The church also housed the remains of Pierre Perrault, the father of the author of Tales, the painter Eustache Le Sueur and Blaise Pascal. Those of Racine and Isaac de Sacy Lemaistre were also transferred in 1711 from Port-Royal in Saint-Etienne. Also Jean-Paul Marat is buried in the church’s cemetery.
During the French Revolution, the church was at first closed and then turned into a ‘Temple of Filial Piety,’ while the remains of St. Geneviève were destroyed. Catholic worship was restored in 1801. The following year, the demolition of the abbey church of Sainte-Genevieve Abbey turned Saint-Etienne into an independent building. Under the Second Empire, the church was renovated by Victor Baltard: the front was raised and the statues destroyed by the revolutionaries were restored.
In 1833 Frederic Ozanam, a parishioner of Saint-Etienne, founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. On August 23, 1997, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there.
On January 3, 1857, Bishop Sibour was assassinated there. Priest Jean-Louis Verger, who opposed the Immaculate Conception dogma, struck him shouting, ‘Down with the goddesses!’ Verger, incidentally a known troublemaker, admitted to the crime and was promptly sentenced to death. To his last moments he believed that Napoleon III would pardon him.
The beautiful church combines late Gothic style with some unique Renaissance features.
The furnishings include the ornate, canopied, wooden pulpit designed by Germaine Pillon and an exquisite 16th-century rood screen, the last one in Paris. The gilded shrine of St. Geneviève contains her tomb, as well as what is left of her scattered remains.