In this article series about the saints, I discuss each of the Disney princesses and their saintly, even more impressive counterparts. It’s practically a right of girlhood to love a good princess story, but it’s also important for little ones and grown-ups alike to know that these real-life women made it to God’s heavenly kingdom. What’s even better is that we’re called to reach the same goal! Disney may be our jumping off point here, but the saints show us how those stories are applied in real time, in every age. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Cinderella. The most classic of all fairytale princesses. Girls of all cultures and backgrounds have been star-struck by her rags-to-riches story. Her glass slipper, pumpkin coach, and Prince Charming have made up a large chunk of girlish fantasy. It’s no surprise, really. What girl wouldn’t love to escape a life of drudgery and cruelty, become a grand lady for a night, and get swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance? I don’t know about you, ladies, but Kit from the 2015 production of Cinderella still has me swooning, with those blue eyes, Colgate smile, and tender personality.
As charming (yes, pun intended) as this fairytale is, there is a real-life Cinderella that few people, even few Catholics know about. St. Germaine Cousin was a young French shepherdess who was born with a disfiguring disease called scrofula. This was a repulsive affliction that caused abscesses of the glands in the neck. She also had a crippled hand. Germaine’s mother died when she was very young, and her father married again, this time to a woman named Hortense (sheesh, what a name!). Much like the beloved Cinderella of the Grimm’s brothers, Germaine was ignored, laughed at, made to sleep in the barn, and was repeatedly beaten and abused by her stepmother. She was even chased through her village of Pibrac, with Hortense brandishing a stick behind her! Needless to say, Germaine’s life was much more difficult than singing “Sweet Nightingale” among the soap bubbles.
Her one consolation was the Faith. She was given enough schooling to receive her First Holy Communion, but she was otherwise just an ignorant peasant. On one occasion, not having anyone else to watch her sheep, she offered a prayer, asking God to watch over them so she could continue her practice of daily Mass, which was her special love and solace. Placing her shepherd’s crook in the ground, she crossed a small brook and went on her way. Sure enough, her flock never strayed under the eye of the Good Shepherd. Having that kind of help is a lot better than singing mice!
Germaine lived out her entire life in this way. Although a social outcast, she was known for her strong yet simple faith, and may have taught catechism lessons to the local children (who seemed to adore her) while resting in the fields with her sheep. Supposedly her father came to his senses near the end of her 22 years and wanted her to have a room in the house once more. This offer she declined, explaining that she preferred her humble dwelling and the isolation it provided, as it helped her to elevate her prayer life.
One night, two monks were traveling through Pibrac, when they saw the figure of a radiantly beautiful young woman in a white robe being escorted beyond the stars by two angels. The next morning, Germaine was discovered dead. It can surely be said that she went to live in her Prince’s castle, for they already knew each other. No glass slipper needed.
Germaine is now hailed as the patroness of those who are abused, abandoned, forgotten, and those who have lost their parents. What better role model could a young girl ask for in a world of parental neglect, sex trafficking, and unstable home life? Cinderella’s story may inspire, but Germaine actually lived it, and that’s a heck of a lot more relatable.
What makes St. Germaine so unique is that she put up with all this abuse for far longer than Cinderella. Although I’m sure she had her fair share of tears, and wistfully gazed out of the barn window, she found an outlet for her sorrow in God. The magical transformation didn’t take the form of a sparkly blue ball gown–it took place within. She had every reason to be filled with hate and bitterness, yet she allowed those experiences to make her more compassionate and loving. She didn’t simply wish away her suffering; she learned how to use it to be kind to others and to deepen her relationship with Christ. In the eyes of the rest of the world, she was a pitiful figure who lived tragically and died lonely. In reality, she was a true warrior. Her life can certainly be said to exemplify Cinderella’s own motto: Have courage and be kind.