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By Lawrence Cunningham

Shepherd to Those Lost or in Danger

Q U I C K S C A N

She Taught What She Knew Best
Moral Miracle
Historical Background


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 had quieted.

Moral Miracle

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 orphans.

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" (Mark 9:42).

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)



Historical Background

Germaine Cousin's path to canonization was sabotaged by ineptitude and politics. After preliminary investigations in 1661, a complete dossier of her life was compiled in 1700. It was entrusted to a Capuchin friar, Father Constantin, by the archbishop of Toulouse. When he reached Rome, the friar asked a companion to deliver the information to the Vatican, since he was leaving for the Middle East. The papers were either lost or forgotten.

In 1765, a priest from a village near Pibrac wrote a life of the saint. This led the archbishop of Toulouse, Paul D'Astros, to reopen her case. Germaine's story came to the attention of Pope Pius IX, but her beatification was delayed until 1854 because of political turmoil in the Papal States. Thirteen years later, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), she was canonized. True to her humble roots, she is listed 13th in the Roman Martyrology among the saints celebrated on June 15.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 18 books, and is at work on another about St. Francis of Assisi.

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