Devotion to St. Germaine Cousin (c.1579-1601) is almost entirely limited to France, her homeland. And while she deserves to be more widely known, her story, to be honest, is not an easy one to tell.
Germaine was born to a peasant family in the village of Pibrac near Toulouse. She came into the world with a withered right arm and a disfiguring skin condition; later she developed a form of tuberculosis that caused unsightly swellings on her neck. Her father, Laurent Cousin, couldn’t bear the sight of her. We don’t know much about Marie Laroche, Germaine’s mother: The poor woman died soon after her little girl was born.
Not long thereafter Laurent remarried, choosing a woman who apparently did not know the meaning of the word compassion. This stepmother would not let Germaine eat with the family. She forbade Germaine to come near her stepbrothers and stepsisters lest they become infected by casual contact with her. She tossed a straw pallet under the stairs and told Germaine she could sleep there. If her stepmother were in an especially foul humor, Germaine would be driven out of the house to spend the night in the barn.
While she was still a girl, Germaine’s father put her to work tending the family’s sheep. Alone in the fields she kept up a constant conversation with God. She began to go to Mass each morning, and prayed the rosary many times over in the course of the day. Germaine’s genuine piety coupled with her meekness in the face of cruelty won over the villagers of Pibrac who began to admire and show sympathy for the poor girl. But Germaine’s family remained as cold-hearted as ever.
Then the people of the village began to tell strange stories about Germaine. They noticed that in order to go to Mass, Germaine had to leave her sheep unattended, yet the sheep never wandered off, nor were they ever attacked by wolves. Once, after a heavy rain, the stream that separated Germaine’s field from the church became a flood. Some villagers said Germaine arrived at Mass on time by walking across the surface of the water; others said the torrent parted for her just as the Red Sea had parted for Moses.
Whether prompted by these reports of miracles or the pangs of his own conscience, Laurent Cousin finally repented of neglecting his daughter. He offered Germaine a real bed in the house and place at the family’s table. But she declined. Years of abuse may have made her suspicious of these unexpected acts of kindness, or perhaps she felt self-conscious about joining a family that had never wanted her. Whatever her reasons, Germaine kept to her routine of watching the sheep and sleeping under the stairs.
One morning she did not get up at her usual time. When Laurent went to wake her he found Germaine dead on her pallet. She was 22 years old.
A fervent local cult grew around her tomb. Today Pibrac welcomes an annual pilgrimage in honor of St. Germaine. Visitors line up to enter the Cousin house and pray at the crawl-space where the patron saint of abused children lived and died. Today is her feast day.
Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)