Genevieve told the people of Paris to stay home and pray, that God would not abandon them. Then later, Atilla and his huns passed the city by and continued south. Too bad for the city of Orleans that they had no Genevieve (though later they would have a Joan).
The king of the Franks, Clovis, founded an abbey for Genevieve, where she was later buried. Miracles happened at her tomb, and Genevieve became a saint, the patron saint of Paris. Over a thousand years later, with the abbey falling apart, an ailing King Louis XV promised to build a new church for her if he recovered. He did, and construction began in 1757. Other things besides church construction were going on in France, and so the building was not completed until 1790.
The Catholic church was in pretty good with the monarchy. The church didn't pay taxes, but they enforced tithing, which sounds a lot like taxes. Those tithes were not redistributed to the poor. When the people rose up and said enough of these silly kings and their silly nobles, the church went down too. Money and property and held by the church was taken by the state to fund the war. The clergy was forced to say an oath to the Civil Constitution. Some of them were forced to marry. Genevieve's remains were publicly burned. Priests were slaughtered, houses of worship were destroyed or turned into Temples of Reason. The Cult of Reason was established, followed by the Cult of the Supreme Being, and secular festivals replaced religious ones.
And in the meantime, the new and beautiful church built for Genevieve sat empty and waiting. In 1791, the National Constituent Assembly declared that the church should be a mausoleum for those who contributed to the great nation of France. They called it the Panthéon, like the temple in Rome that was built to honor all the gods. The first to be honored was a statesmen. And then they went and dug up Voltaire and put him in there, then later Rousseau. Five other heroes of the revolution were interred in the crypt, and then quickly removed as revolution gave way to counter-revolution. But everyone still agreed about Voltaire and Rousseau.
It turned out that state-enforced secularism worked no better than state-enforced religion. Christianity went underground, humbled and battered, but not dead. Those killed were recognized as martyrs.
Napoleon figured out a third way, where the Catholic church, plus the Jews and the Protestants, was subsidized by the state. The upper chamber of the Panthéon was made a church, leaving the crypt for the great men of France. After the emperor was exiled, the kings came back and the Panthéon became a church again. The tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau were hidden. Another king gave the building back to the people and then another after that made it a church again. Finally, when Victor Hugo died, everyone decided that they'd like to bury him there, and so it was back to being the Panthéon.
The end result of all this switching is that there are secular heroes of France buried downstairs. Upstairs, the walls are covered with paintings of the life of St Genevieve, plus allegorical images and statues of the republic (Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!). It is honestly a little confused. They've got their church and their state all mixed up. And yet, it worked. I was reminded of the atmosphere of reverence you can find in the monuments to our own secular saints in Washington, D.C. Humans apparently need to worship.
All those French books I read did not really help my appreciation of the city of Paris, with the notable exception of the Panthéon. For one thing, I only knew to go there because Jack Kerouac told me about it. And then once we got to the crypt, I was able to greet all those men of letters like old friends. Voltaire! Zola! Dumas! Malraux! Hey, guys, good job with all those books! Not to mention the Curies and Louis Braille, plus a bunch of other dudes that French schoolchildren probably study, but I know nothing about. I bet all those guys have really interesting conversations when the tourists have all gone home.
The Panthéon is one of those places that does not get a lot of press. There was no line to get in. The downside of this is that most of the signs were only in French, though I think there was an English audioguide available. The building itself is amazing. I could stand open-mouthed and look at big domes and huge columns all day long. I don't know anything about architecture, but I learned something at the special exhibit they had about the guy who designed the building, Jacques-Germain Soufflot (signs in English!). It's too bad it's not more well-known, because I think a lot of Americans would be down with a patriotic church.