Cover image for Little saint
Little saint
Green, Hannah.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2000]

Physical Description:
276 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BX4700.F37 G74 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



This is a book written in ecstasy.          In the early 1970s, the writer Hannah Green and her husband, Jack Wesley, an artist, came upon a village called Conques, curled like a conch shell in the mountains of south-central France. Entranced, they returned the next year, and the next, living there for months at a time, for more than twenty years. Hannah Green was attracted to the craggy landscape, the ancient language, the traditions of the region. Most of all, she felt herself drawn to the story of the little saint whose spirit fills the lives in that place. In the fourth century, a girl--who becomes this book's "shining center"--had refused the demand of a Roman ruler to deny her faith; she was betrayed by her father and then beheaded. She was twelve years old.          Sainte Foy's remains came to be the "golden spark" that inspired a cult and inspired this American writer, a Protestant and a "stranger to saints," to devote the rest of her life to writing one book. To do so, Hannah Green had to improve her French to the point where she could translate original documents. She and her husband were soon accepted by the villagers--indeed, were loved by them. In time, Hannah began to sense that she was part of a centuries-long parade of pilgrims who came to Conques and were transformed.          Ostensibly the story of one day, the twenty-four hours described here have twenty centuries woven through them. The result is a rare work, in part history, biography, celebration, meditation, inspiration. It is an ode to joy, death, the earthy, and the spiritual. The prose spirals like a shell, poetic or plainsong. It is good-humored, yet it is also the memoir of intensely felt, almost painfully loving personal experience.          Written in a kind of rapture,Little Sainttells the story of a living presence, of her travels in time; of holy and healing places and characters; of fields of force and unexplained emanations; and of a saintly girl who makes jokes. It is a story as well of one woman, deeply American, who found in France while on holiday a place and a person for all time.

Author Notes

Hannah Green was born in Ohio & studied writing with Vladimir Nabokov & Wallace Stegner. Her novel "The Dead of the House" was published in 1972 to critical acclaim. She died in 1996.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In hauntingly lyrical prose, Green juxtaposes her own contemporary visits to an enchanting French village with a chronicle of the town's most illustrious citizen, a 12-year-old girl martyred in A.D. 303. Renamed Saint Foy after her death and canonization, Faith, a young noblewoman accused of heresy, was betrayed by her father and beheaded after refusing to deny her faith. In addition to recounting the martyred girl's brief but extraordinary life, Green also chronicles her own unique spiritual odyssey, a self-revelatory journey prompted by her almost mystical fascination with Saint Foy. Venerated by the citizens in the town of Conques and by the pilgrims who travel off the beaten path to visit her reliquary and remains, Saint Foy continues to exert a powerful influence over contemporary life. An intimate, double-edged portrait of both the author and her biographical subject. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

A form of perfectionistic paralysis seems to have gripped Green, author of the critically acclaimed 1972 novel The Dead of the House, who spent more than a quarter-century writing this evocative account of her romance with a French village and its martyr-saint. Like the masonry and artwork of the antique Provenal chapels Green describes, her words bear the imprint of long, loving attention to detail. In the 1970s, Green became entranced by Conques, a hamlet in the south of France, and its shrine dedicated to Foy, a 4th-century Christian girl martyred for refusal to sacrifice to a pagan deity. Foy's relics, encased in a golden and jewel-encrusted statue, made Conques a medieval pilgrimage center. Green explains, with stunning sensitivity for a modern writer, what devotees felt when they stood in the saint's presenceDa mixture of awe and intimacy that exerts power still. Green also captures the rhythms of life in a French village. By the end readers feel they know her neighbors, can taste the village's special foods, and can see the churches and sacred stones Green contemplates. One can quibble with certain aspects of the bookDthe descriptions of flora and fauna become tedious, and Green idealizes peasants as only "big city" writers are capable of doing. Yet Little Saint rises as close to perfection as hagiographic literature ever has. The author, who has passed away since completing the book, should rest easy. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Green, who wrote for The New Yorker and authored a single novel, the celebrated The Dead of the House, first visited Conques, France, with her painter husband in 1975. Over the next 20 years, they returned frequently to live for months at a time. (Green passed away in 1996.) Green identifies herself as of "Swedenborgian and Episcopalian background, a stranger to saints," yet this "ancient place of pilgrimage" gave her "the gift of seeing into that zone which has been held sacred since the beginning of human consciousness." Conques was the site of the fourth-century martyrdom of a 12-year-old noble girl, later known as Sainte Foy. Green's memoirs are set mostly in "the continuous present of a June day" in 1979. Her encounters with villagers and with the presence of this saint, who still dominates the village, may be read as an interesting travelog or as a spiritual encounter. This beautifully written book reflects wide-eyed wonder at the ordinary life of a village, where past and present miracles are accepted as simple reality, ancient martyrdom and memories of Nazi horrors penetrate the present, and time seems to merge with eternity. Recommended for larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/00; see "A Stranger to Saints Finds Faith," on p. 84.DEd.]DCarolyn M. Craft., Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Little Saint is an unusual book. An extended meditation on legends and spirituality associated with the virgin-martyr Sainte Foy (c. 290-303), it is also a mid-life memoir by Hannah Green, author of the novel The Dead of the House (1972). In this richly detailed, beautifully written volume, Green takes readers to the village of Conques in the mountains of south central France, and into the abbey church where Sainte Foy's relics are housed in a gilded, bejeweled statue, its various parts fabricated between the fourth and the ninth centuries. Green, "from an old Swedenborgian and Episcopalian background, a stranger to saints" shows us how Foy has served as "the sacred center" for a diverse collection of devotees, herself included, for sixteen centuries. She also captures the complexities of a cult that transcends time while remaining identified with a specific place. Green's Little Saint represents a new hagiography, engaging and accessible to self-proclaimed secularists, a compelling account of what makes Sainte Foy's reliquaries surprisingly "warm" to pilgrims, a warmth emanating from "the caring that has gone into them over the centuries," from those who created, revered, and preserved them. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. D. Campbell; Colby College



CHAPTER 1 MORNING: DESCENT INTO THE TREASURE On the far side of the cloister in the long, chapel-like room called the Treasure, she sits on her throne--a small stiff gold figure robed in gold and covered with jewels and crowned with a golden diadem. Up the hill from there, Jack stands tall beside the fountain behind the little house we have rented for the summer. Here we are once again after several returns, here we are in the month of June, not yet St. John's Day. Jack is about to mend his bicycle tire. This afternoon we arc going to Lunel. The springwater flows forth through the mouth of a mask deep in a niche in the stone embankment of the hillside and splashes into the round basin below. Sunlight quivers on the surface of the water, and dapples of watery sunshine fly like lunar moths on the stones of the niche above, and across the mottled face of the mask, which resembles the grimacing head that guards the church from the outer wall of the tribune on the north, high above the western entrance. The bells ring for eleven o'clock. Sunbrowned and strong, Jack takes the inner tube in his competent hands, good hands, and plunges it into the water. " Ah, mais il est beau! Il est fin! Il est un bon garcon! " old Madame Benoit was saying this morning, smiling her smile of infinite sweetness, her eyes as blue as the sky, her face and her hair as white as the clouds. I was in her tiny apartment in the old convent for a few minutes to pick up a book she wanted to lend me. "I am not afraid of death," she said quietly. "I have my faith." And she lifted her right hand in a gesture like a bird flying off, a gesture so perfect that I could see as she did it how her soul would fly out of the window and up, and she would go down there-- la bas --to the cemetery below the church. She waved her hand in that direction. "I have my reservation," she said with a mixture of pride and humor. Sometimes she speaks triumphantly: "I will go on the cloak of the Virgin," she says. Just now I remember to tell Jack. "Oh, Madame Benoit was saying earlier this morning, 'Oh, but he is handsome, he is fine, he is a good boy. Everyone agrees!'" Jack laughs, pleased. He will be fifty in November. But Madame Benoit is ninety-one. Ninety-one! " Quatre-vingt-onze! " " Quatre-vingt-onze et un demi ," said my friend Rosalie, correcting me, nodding her head tenderly up and down. (Not in Madame Benoit's presence.) La Rosalie de bon matin S'en va t'au jardin Pour y culir la brioulete La belle fleur ... One fine morning Rosalie Goes out to her garden To cut the brioulete, That pretty flower So sings Madame Benoit, who sings, who sings, who has a song for every occasion, and who, ninety-one and a half, and tiny and plump and limber as a rag doll in her soft clothes, her soft shoes, goes with her cane up and down the steep streets of Conques with a swiftness and agility so remarkable that someone--I could not make out who she was talking about, but someone, another woman--had gotten very excited and somewhat angry, declaring she was on this account " Pas normale ." " Pas normale! " she repeated, echoing her friend's anger, and laughing. The other day when Madame Benoit was walking with her cousin Madame Fabre (from whom we rent our house), out the Rue du Chateau, beyond the old Porte du Foumouze with its Romanesque fountain and, a little farther on, the lacy iron cross that rises above an ancient stone Virgin, now beheaded, there, Madame Fabre told us, Madame Benoit tripped and fell down on her knees in a mud puddle. Madame Fabre lifted her hands to her face to show us how aghast she'd been. But in that very moment, Madame Benoit turned her head and looked up. I am doing the Stations of the Cross," she said. Madame Benoit is a force . I am moved by her and drawn to her. It makes me feel warm to sit near her. Her breath smells of strawberry jam. Sometimes she says, like a litany, in her warm low voice, "Sainte Foy, holy martyr who died for Christ, Sainte Foy protects us here at Conques" and she smiles her smile of pride. And besides she has a memory that goes back further than her ninety-one years, straight back through her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother, so she can tell you, for instance, the story of the great complot of 1791 when the people of Conques saved the statue of Sainte Foy and the rest of the golden treasure from the soldiers who were coming to confiscate it. "Oh, there was a terrible storm that night," she says. "There was thunder and lightning and the rain fell in torrents, the streets turned into rushing rivers and veritable cascades. No one dared to go out . . ." The bells ring eleven a second time. It is their way. To the south, a quarter of a mile off and up in the sun-green afternoon, the wooden cross at the high outermost point of the gorge of the Ouche stands tall and thin and slightly askew against the sky. Above us bees hum in the wisteria that grows over the fence along the wall. Below us the stone roofs glint in the sunlight. Les lauzes they call these stones cut from the schist rock and laid like slates in a scalloped pattern as beautiful as shining fish scales across the steep roofs of Conques. The schist stones are blue-gray with a sheen of silver (mica) or rose-beige with gleams of gold (mica), and the dark lichens and mosses have grown over them, as they have over the craggy rocks that jut forth from the mountainsides here and rise up like castle ruins in the chasms. Cut in irregular slabs and laid on their sides and bound and covered with the pinkish mortar and stucco made from the red sand of the Dourdou, these are the stones from which the houses of Conques are built. Carrying my notebook and my pencil in my tiny deerskin Indian bag, I descend in among them, down through the roses, down the stairs that form the little street-- la ruelle --that runs past our house, and down through the narrow stone streets below. From above me, from their kitchens half-shuttered against the noon heat, come the happy voices of the Conquois finishing their lunches. The Place de l'Eglise is still empty. And it is silent except for the hoarse whistling screeches of the swallows (the dark swifts) soaring, wheeling, darting into and out from the ancient yellowed walls of the basilica; and the splashing of the Plo--the spring whose virtues were already praised in the twelfth-century Guide for the Pilgrim to Saint James of Compostela because Sainte Foy of Conques had become a major stop along the Via Podiensis, the route of Notre Dame du Puy, one of the four pilgrim routes that lead across France toward that far Finis-terre (end of the earth) to the west, beyond the Pyrenees, where, toward the end of the eighth century, the body of Saint James was discovered by the hermit Pelayo beneath an ancient shrine on a thickly wooded hill over which a great star hovered. "The Burgundians and the Teutons who go to Saint James by the Via Podiensis must go to venerate the relics of Sainte Foy, virgin and martyr," writes the author of the Guide (traditionally thought to be Aymery Picaud); and he tells us the manner of her martyr-death at Agen and that of the blessed Caprais, bishop of the town, whom she inspired. "Finally," he writes, "the very precious body of the blessed Faith, virgin and martyr, was entombed with honor in a valley called, in the common speech, Conques (Conquas), and over her sepulcher was built a beautiful basilica, where for the glory of God, even up to our own day, the Rule of Saint Benedict is observed with the greatest care; many graces are granted to those who come to venerate the relics of Sainte Foy, both to those who come in good health and to the sick; in front of the doors of the church there flows forth a most excellent source whose virtues are more admirable than anyone can say. Her fete is celebrated on the sixth of October." Excerpted from Little Saint: The Hours of Saint Foy by Hannah Green All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.