Germaine Cousin, born in 1579, was only an infant when her
mother died. She was left in the somewhat indifferent care
of her father, Laurent, a peasant of Pibrac near the French
city of Toulouse.
Laurent’s second wife, Hortense, appears to have been the
quintessential wicked stepmother. She despised the sickly
child who had a deformed arm and symptoms of scrofula, now
diagnosed as tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck.
Hortense consigned her stepdaughter to a straw mat in the
barn or an alcove under a stairwell. Fed leftover slops, Germaine
never had a pair of shoes.
At the age of five, Germaine was already a shepherdess,
with the added task of spinning a daily quota of wool. If
she failed, she went hungry that night. Hortense beat the
young child regularly.
She Taught What She Knew Best
Germaine never went to school, though she learned enough
catechism to make her First Communion. She would pasture her
animals "in the care of the angels," as she said, to walk
to daily Mass. She also taught other children the rudiments
of faith while they were in the fields, earning a reputation
as a religious fanatic.
Over time, however, her simple piety won over the villagers
and even her stepmother who invited her back to full family
membership. Germaine chose to keep her pallet under the stairs.
In 1601, just shy of her 22nd birthday, she was found dead.
She was buried in the village church in an unmarked grave
under the flagstones of the nave.
In 1644, her incorrupt body was discovered during restorations.
She was identified by an elderly neighbor who recognized her
from her crippled arm. She was reburied in a casket and devotees
began to regard her as a saint.
In 1793 her casket was violated by a local tinsmith who
used lead from the casket to make bullets for soldiers in
the French Revolution. Her body was thrown into a grave in
the sacristy and covered with quicklime. Germaine’s body was
reinterred when the anti-religious fervor of the Revolution
Devotion to Germaine is quite strong in France where pilgrims
come to her shrine in Pibrac to invoke her aid. She is the
special patroness of victims of abuse, abandoned people, persons
with disabilities, shepherdesses, young women in danger and
Pope Pius IX canonized her in 1867. While many miracles
have been attributed to her intercession, the great moral
miracle is that she was never spiritually or psychologically
crippled by the indifference or abuse she suffered.
While we can admire her heroism, we would be remiss if we
did not also feel a profound anger over the abuse she—like
so many others in her time and ours—received. Germaine reminds
us of the fierce words of Jesus against those who scandalize
children: "It would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea"
In these crisis-laden days in the contemporary Church, the
example of Germaine speaks across the centuries to remind
us that, among the abused, great saints are to be found.
Next month: St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373)