St. Germaine of Pibrac
The life story of the “Cinderella Saint”
Germaine was born in the remote French village of Pibrac in 1579. Unlike Joan of Arc or Therese of Lisieux, she was unknown during her lifetime outside of her own village, and was a practical outcast there.
She endured a wretched life as an unwanted child of the prosperous Laurent Cousin family. There is not even proof that she was entitled to the name of Cousin, for what true parents would allow their own child to be consigned to a stable and literally starved to death? Physical and mental abuse were part of Germaine’s daily routine.
Germaine was a frail, sickly child, afflicted with scrofula, a terrible disease which caused abscesses about the neck. Her right arm was deformed and partially paralyzed. She was a prey to every illness of the time due to the unsanitary conditions in which she lived.
Laurent Cousin’s wife beat Germaine savagely. The child’s body bore livid testimony of her cruelty. She was dressed in cast-off rags and never given a pair of shoes. Her feet were frost-bitten in winter and bloody in summer as she led the Laurent flock to pasture and back.
Germaine lived with the animals, had a mattress of hay and twigs in a corner of the barn. She was given little food and was often so hungry she ate what the dogs and pigs left behind. She was never sent to school, merely instructed briefly in order to make her First Holy Communion. Her only refuge was her parish church, where she attended Mass every morning, and found strength and comfort in her faith.
Her daily work was to shepherd the Laurent’s flock of sheep. It is told that while her sheep were grazing, she would teach catechism lessons to the local children and share stories of the saints that she learned at Church.
Germaine endured daily suffering and humiliation without complaining. Perhaps the most celebrated incident in Germaine’s life occurred shortly before her death. One wintry day the village people saw the stepmother pursuing Germaine as she drove her flock down the road. The woman was screaming and shrilly accused Germaine of having stolen a loaf of bread and concealing it in her apron. Threatening to strike the girl with a club, she demanded that Germaine unfold her apron. The girl did so, and fragrant flowers, of a kind unknown in the region, cascaded to the snow-covered ground.
On the night of her death, two monks traveling from Toulouse lost their way in the forest and sought shelter for the night in the ruins of an ancient castle. At midnight they were awakened by music, and witnessed a luminous vision of ghostly forms escorting a young woman, garlanded in flowers, to heaven.
Upon reaching Pibrac the next morning, the monks inquired if anyone had died during the night. Only a poor shepherd girl, they were told. Germaine Cousin had been found dead in her family’s stable. She was 22 years old.
In accordance with the custom of the day, Germaine’s body was interred in the village church, consigned to a grave under the flagstone floor of the church opposite the pulpit, without marker or inscription.
Forty-one years later, when a relative named Edualde was to be buried at the same site, the grave diggers found a beautiful girl beneath the flagstone. Her body was in a state of perfect preservation. The older residents of Pibrac identified the corpse as that of Germaine Cousin. The scrofula scars were evident, as was her deformed arm.
A series of astounding miracles through the succeeding seventeen years attracted the attention of Monsignor Jean Dufour, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Toulouse. He came to investigate on September 22, 1661, and found Germaine’s body still perfect sixty years after her death! Msgr. Dufour began the process of her canonization, but that course was to prove as painful and full of obstacles as her life had been.
By 1700, a voluminous of official documents and testimony was entrusted by the Archbishop of Toulouse to a Capuchin monk, Father Constantin de Figeac, to deliver to Rome. The file, however, was mislaid and forgotten, having never reached its destination.
Nevertheless, there was great devotion to Germaine at Pibrac, which was offensive to the leaders of the French Revolution. The local revolutionaries decided that “superstition” should be stamped out there. A tinsmith named Toulza was sent with three assistants to destroy the body of Germaine. They dug a hole under the sacristy floor, dumped the corpse into it, spread a large quantity of quicklime over it and drenched the lime with water. The lead casket was confiscated to be melted down for bullets for the revolution.
When the Reign of Terror subsided, the citizens of Pibrac reopened the lime pit. Germaine’s body was brought forth, still in perfect preservation, more beautiful than ever. She was returned to the sacristy of the church.
In 1765, Abbe Francis, a priest of the village of Auriac near Pibrac, published a book relating the story of Germaine. The book inspired interest in the shepherdess throughout France. In 1843, Cardinal Paul d’Astros, Archbishop of Toulouse, officially reopened the cause of Germaine for canonization.
Pope Pius IX was equally fascinated by Germaine, but political events of the time once again intervened, and prevented her beatification until May 7, 1854. Germaine was finally declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on June 29, 1867, 266 years after her death.
On that day the little girl with a withered arm, whom no one wanted, was given to the world to love and cherish as a glorified saint of God, and inspiration for all who suffer.
Prayer to St. Germaine
Blessed Germaine, you knew poverty and hunger:
protect those in need.
You knew handicaps and illness:
watch over the handicapped and sick.
You knew rejection and loneliness:
be a friend to those who are alone.
You knew the pain of being an abused child:
guard all children from such hardship.
You knew what it meant to trust in the Lord:
help us all believe, and hope, and love.