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St. Denis (also called Dionysius, Dennis, or Denys)
Feast day: October 9
Denis is a Christian martyr and saint. In the third
century, he was Bishop of Paris. He was martyred in approximately A.D.
250, and is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as patron of Paris,
France and as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The modern name "Denis"
derives from the ancient name Dionysius.
Gregory of Tours states that Denis was bishop of the
Parisii and was martyred by being beheaded by a sword. The earliest
document giving an account of his life and martyrdom, the "Passio SS.
Dionysii Rustici et Eleutherii" dates from c. 600, is mistakenly
attributed to the poet Venantius, and is legendary.
Nevertheless, it appears from the Passio that Denis
was sent from Italy to convert Gaul in the third century, forging a link
with the "apostles to the Gauls" reputed to have been sent out under the
direction of Pope Fabian. This was after the persecutions under Emperor
Decius had all but dissolved the small Christian community at Lutetia.
Denis, with his inseparable companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, who
were martyred with him, settled on the River Seine. Roman Paris lay on
the higher ground of the Left Bank, away from the river.
Denis, having menaced the pagan priests by his many
conversions, was executed by beheading on the highest hill in Paris (now
Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. The
martyrdom of Denis and his companions gave it its current name, which in
Old French means "mountain of martyrs. According to the Golden Legend,
after his head was chopped off, Denis picked it up and walked two miles,
preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching
and actually died was made into a small shrine that developed into the
Saint Denis Basilica, which became the burial place for the kings of
France. Another account has his corpse being thrown in the Seine, but
recovered and buried later that night by his converts.
Veneration of Saint Denis began soon after his death.
The bodies of Saints Denis, Eleutherius, and Rusticus were buried on the
spot of their martyrdom, where the construction of the saint's basilica
was begun by Saint Geneviève, assisted by the people of Paris. His
veneration spread beyond France when, in 754, Pope Stephen II, who was
French, brought veneration of Saint Denis to Rome. Abbot Suger removed
the relics of Denis, and those associated with Rustique and Eleuthére,
from the crypt to reside under the high altar of the Saint-Denis he
The feast of Saint Denis was added to the Roman
Calendar in the year 1568 by Pope Pius V, though it had been celebrated
since at least the year 800.