By Simon Cotton
Some people collect postage stamps; I’m no philatelist, I collect French cathedrals. Over the years I have visited around 120 of them, and been to Mass in some 35, from the Gothic masterpieces of the north (Chartres, Paris, Amiens, Bourges) to more modest Romanesque buildings in the south.
On an August Sunday in 2002, I went to Mass in the Cathedral of Sainte Marie in Auch; begun in 1489, it is the last gasp of French Gothic architecture. After Mass had ended, I walked over to the Chapel of the Nativity in the south aisle to admire its carved retable, or altarpiece. I then turned, to be faced by the statue of a saint, a young woman with an apron full of roses. “Ah, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary,” I thought, before noticing two sheep beside her, and the name below, Ste. Germaine de Pibrac.
One August day, six years later, I arrived at Pibrac, a large village about eight miles west of the city of Toulouse and drove up to its church. At its west end it has a tall, triangular headed brick wall, whose top is a belfry with triangular-headed openings. This is known as a clocher-mur, and such bell turrets atop fortified walls are nothing unusual in the pays Toulousain. I walked through the south porch and was immediately faced by a large gilded reliquary. I knew that I had stumbled upon a holy shrine.
Life was not kind to Germaine Cousin (1579-1601). Born with a deformed right hand and a scrofulous skin condition, she lost her mother very early on. Her father soon remarried, and her stereotypically cruel stepmother forced Germaine to have her bed in a shed, to prevent “contagion.” Germaine was not allowed to go to school and was forced instead to work by herself as a shepherdess.
Germaine was devout, a woman of prayer. Despite her condition, and the fact that she existed on bread and water, she gave food to those whom she thought less fortunate. Abuse continued; on one cold winter’s day witnesses saw Germaine being chased by her stepmother with a big stick, having been accused of stealing bread to give to the poor. When the stepmother pulled Germaine’s apron open, bunches of flowers were revealed. One morning, realizing that Germaine had not risen at the usual time, her father went out to the shed to awake her, and found her lying dead on her bed of vine-twigs. Twenty-two-year-old Germaine was buried in Pibrac church, opposite the pulpit.
A few decades later, grave diggers opened the Pibrac church floor to bury a local grandee. After a few blows of the pick, they uncovered a body of a young girl wrapped in a shroud, wearing a garland of wild carnations with ears of rye. In her right hand, she held a candle, which would have been lit during the funeral service before being put in her hand at burial. The body was perfectly preserved.
Two old people, Pierre Paillès and Jeanne Salaires, immediately recognized the body as Germaine’s. They went on to say what they recalled about Germaine. She attended Mass almost every day, leaving her flock in the care of her guardian angel while she went to church. No sheep were ever lost, despite the brigands and wolves in the area. Germaine would also go to confession and make her communion with her Lord every Sunday; when she was in the fields with her flock and heard the Angelus bell ring, she would immediately kneel down to pray. People also recalled miracles that had happened during Germaine’s lifetime.
Germaine’s body was reinterred in a casket. People began coming to pray at her tomb, venerating “the devout Germaine.” An investigation into her sanctity began; and a number of cures occurred. This investigation was delayed for several reasons, including the French Revolution, when revolutionaries covered her body with lime. Pilgrimages began again after the Revolution. Finally, Germaine’s cause was taken up again, and Pope Pius IX canonized St. Germaine de Pibrac on June 29, 1867.
The Catholic Church doesn’t require its saints to be born to lives of privilege, to have been given towering intellects or to be “respectable” persons. We are free to believe that St. Louis and St. Thomas Aquinas led the rejoicing when the poor little shepherdess of Pibrac, patron of the abused and marginalized, was received amongst the holy company of heaven.
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S. Eliot wrote: If humility and purity are not in the heart, they are not in the home: and if they are not in the home, they are not in the city.
Pray for victims of abuse, both children and the aged.
Reflect on Luke 6:28, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. The Gospel commands us to pray for those who abuse us. This is difficult, sometimes exceedingly difficult. But not impossible.
Remember the story of Germaine Cousin, against the day when someone preaching a corrupt gospel of consumerism tells you that Christians can expect to enjoy lives of uninterrupted material, physical and spiritual success.
Also remember a dear friend of mine, afflicted with a tumour near her optic nerve. Despite her misfortunes, all she can say is that there are others much worse off than herself. She puts me to shame. Please pray for her.
Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.