Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Cinderella Story: St. Germaine Cousin's Fairy-Tale Ending Was Sainthood, but the Moral of Her Story Is a Call to Care for Victims of Child Abuse, Not Celebrate Her Suffering

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Cinderella Story: St. Germaine Cousin's Fairy-Tale Ending Was Sainthood, but the Moral of Her Story Is a Call to Care for Victims of Child Abuse, Not Celebrate Her Suffering

Article excerpt

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED HER IN A COLD STONE church in Perigueux, France. She stood in a corner, a young shepherdess with a plaster lamb looking up at her trustingly. Something about her--maybe the dark apricot color of her dress, or the surprising plainness of her face--captivated me. Whatever the reason, I snapped a picture and noted her name: St. Germaine Cousin.

Years later, in a book of saints, I stumbled upon her story. Just like the statue, Germaine's tragic life speaks to me on an almost visceral level. It's a story that leads me to ponder the hidden lives of the most vulnerable members of our society: the children.

St. Germaine was born in Pibrac, France in 1579. Her mother died when she was a baby, and her father remarried a woman named Hortense, the archetypal evil stepmother.

Hortense made no secret of her dislike for Germaine, who was born with a deformed right hand and had the disease of scrofula, which made sores erupt on her neck. This dislike took the form of neglect and abuse; Hortense deprived Germaine of food and made her sleep in the stable or in the space under the stairs. As a girl Germaine was sent to tend the sheep, another way to keep the ugly child out of her stepmother's sight.

Germaine, though, turned this banishment into a closer relationship with the divine. Although she knew only the most basic elements of her faith, she developed a rich prayer life and personal friendship with God. She went to daily Mass and shared spiritual stories with the local children; she often gave her meager food scraps to beggars.

Her loving generosity--and her astonishing lack of resentment toward her stepmother--gradually earned her the villagers' respect. As her reputation for holiness grew, her family had a change of heart and invited her back into the house, but Germaine preferred the humble bed she'd always known. One morning, when she was 22, her father went to wake her. He found her dead in her bed.

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THE STORY OF GERMAINE IS FILLED with pathos; it s the Little Match Girl or Cinderella without the prince. On the face of it, it's odd that this girl has such an impact on me. Germaine seems overly meek and humble, not the strong female figures I usually find compelling.

But this saint grabs me and won't let me go. Perhaps it's because I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog. As a kid, I'd buy the shabby, shopworn stuffed animal rather than the brand new one. Now, as a high school teacher, my heart aches any time I see a teen sitting alone at lunch while his peers chat in comfort able groups. …

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