Celtic and Old English Saints – 15 May

St. Dympna of Gheel, Virgin & Martyr(Dymphna, Dympne)


Died c. 650. Dympna is said to have been the daughter of a pagan Irish (from Monaghan?), British, or Amorican king and a Christian princess who died when she was very young, but who had baptized her daughter. As Dympna grew into a young woman, her uncanny resemblance to her dead mother aroused an incestuous passion in her father.

On the advice of her confessor, Saint Gerebernus (f.d. today), Dympna fled from home. Accompanied by Gerebernus and attended by the court jester and his wife, she took a ship to Antwerp. She then travelled through wild forest country until she reached a small oratory dedicated to Saint Martin on the site of the present-day town of Gheel (25 miles from Antwerp). The group settled there to live as hermits and during the several months before they were found, Dympna gained a reputation for holiness because of her devotion to the poor and suffering.

Dympna’s father had pursued her to Antwerp, and he sent spies who found them by tracing their use of foreign coins. The king tried to persuade her to return, but when she refused, the king ordered that she and Gerebernus be killed. The king’s men killed the priest and their companions but hesitated to kill Dympna. The king himself struck off her head with his sword. The bodies were left on the ground. They were buried by angelic or human hands on the site where they had perished.

The whole story gripped the imagination of the entire countryside especially because, according to tradition, lunatics were cured at her grave. Great interest in her cultus was renewed and spread when the translation of the relics of Dympna was followed by the cures of a number of epileptics, lunatics, and persons under evil influences who had visited the shrine.

Under her patronage, the inhabitants of Gheel have been known for the care they have given to those with mental illnesses. By the close of the 13th century, an infirmary was built. Today the town possesses a first-class sanatorium, one of the largest and most efficient colonies for the mentally ill in the world. It was one of the first to initiate a program through which patients live normal and useful lives in the homes of farmers or local residents, whom they assist in their labour and whose family life they share. The strength of Dympna’s cultus is evidenced by this compassionate work of the people of Gheel for the mentally ill at a time when they were universally neglected or treated with hostility.

The body of Dympna is preserved in a silver reliquary in the church bearing her name. Only the head of Gerebernus rests there, the remains have been removed to Sonsbeck in the diocese of Muenster. (Attwater, Benedictines, D’Arcy, Delaney, Farmer, Kenney, Montague, O’Hanlon, White).

In art, Saint Dympna is a crowned maiden with a sword and the devil on a chain. Many children in Belgium are called Dympna, but in Ireland she is remembered under the form Damhnat, while in England Daphne is used.

Dympna is invoked against insanity, mental illness of all types, asylums for the mentally ill, nurses of the mentally ill, sleepwalking, epilepsy, and demoniac possession (Roeder). Her feast day is kept in Ireland and Gheel.