Saint For The Afflicted, by Father Lawrence George Lovasik, S.V.D.

detail from the painting 'Martyrdom of Saint Dymphna and Saint Gerebernus' by Gerard Seghers, early 17th century; Staatsgalerie im Neuen Schloss, Schleißheim, Germany; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsCatholics for the most part are entirely unfamiliar with many of the glorious saints of Ireland. One such forgotten or unknown saint, who, on account of her spotless virtue and glorious martyrdom, is sometimes referred to as the “Lily of Eire,” is Saint Dymphna (pronounced: dimf-na).

Many details of the life of Saint Dymphna are lacking, but the outstanding facts of her short life, as well as the many miracles worked through her intercession after her death, are well known. Her life was written by a certain Peter, a Canon Regular of Saint Autbert’s Church in Cambray, France, in 1680. Other writers before him have written about her and entertained almost tender devotion toward her.

Dymphna was born in the seventh century, when Ireland was almost universally Catholic. Yet, strange to say, her father, Damon, a petty king or chieftain of Oriel, was a pagan. He was a man of great wealth and power, acquired by his success in many wars. Her mother was also of noble descent, exceptionally beautiful, and a devout Christian. Dymphna herself is said to have borne a striking resemblance to her mother and to have inherited both her beauty and charm of disposition. She was a most sweet and winsome child. Every affection and attention was lavished on her from birth. Heaven, too, favored her with special graces.

Dymphna was fourteen when tragedy struck the household. Her mother died and her father is said to have been afflicted with a mental illness, brought on by his grief. The girl was entrusted to the care of a devout Christian woman, who prepared her for Baptism. Father Gerebran, an old and venerable priest, baptized her. He was evidently a member of the household and later taught Dymphna her letters along with the truths of religion. A bright and eager pupil, she advanced rapidly in wisdom and grace. When still very young, Dymphna, like so many other noble Irish maidens before and after her, being filled with a deep love for Jesus Christ, chose Him for her Divine Spouse and consecrated her virginity to Him and to His Blessed Mother by a vow of chastity.

In a frantic effort to fill the void in his life caused by the death of his wife, Dymphna’s father sent messengers throughout his own and other lands to find some woman of noble birth, resembling his beloved wife, who would be willing to marry him. Their search was fruitless. Very likely filled with fear of punishments, they proposed another plan. They directed the king’s attention to the remarkable resemblance between Dymphna and her mother, both in physical beauty and charm of disposition, and suggested that he propose marriage to her.

Under the stress of mental illness and passion, the king was willing to follow this scandalous proposal. He tried to persuade Dymphna by promises of riches and flattering words. But she was filled with disgust by the persistent advances of her father, not only because she saw the evil of such a marriage, but also because she had already dedicated herself to a life of virginity and would have rejected marriage under any circumstances.

Dymphna laid the matter before Father Gerebran and upon his advice decided to flee from her homeland. He himself agreed to accompany her, together with two other friends, the court jester and his wife. The little group hurried to the coast. Faithful vassals rowed them across the mist-laden North Sea. They landed upon the Belgian coast near Antwerp. Fleeing inland, the fugitives made their way to Gelium – now Gheel – where hospitable villagers received the Celtic strangers into their homes. They found here a chapel dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, and decided to make their home near it. Dymphna soon made herself beloved by her tender care of the sick and poor.

Damon, very angry at the disappearance of his daughter, immediately set out in search of the fugitives. They were eventually traced to Belgium. When Dymphna’s father tried to persuade her to return with him, Father Gerebran rebuked him for his wicked proposal. In order to break down her resistance, the king gave orders that Father Gerebran should be put to death. Without delay, his wicked retainers laid violent hands upon the priest. With one blow of a sword his head was severed from his shoulders.

The death of her beloved spiritual guide only confirmed Dymphna’s resolution to resist unto blood, if needs be, herself. Her father again tried to persuade her to return to Ireland with him. This time she not only refused but even scorned his cruel threats. Infuriated by her resistance, he drew his sword and struck off the head of his daughter. She was then only fifteen years of age. Dymphna received the crown of martyrdom between the years 620 and 640.

The records of Dymphna’s life and death say that the bodies of the two martyrs lay on the ground for quite some time before the inhabitants of Gheel removed them to a cave. Some years later a more suitable trial place was sought. When the workingmen, assigned to the task, entered the cave and cleared away the rubble, they discovered two beautifully sculptured tombs of pure white stone. They opened Dymphna’s coffin and found lying over her breast a red tile bearing the inscription: ‘Here lies the body of the holy virgin and martyr, Dymphna.’ Her remains were placed in a small church of the town and kept there for many years.

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Dymphna died to save her virginity from a violently insane father. Her martyrdom bears a striking resemblance to that of Saint Maria Goretti in our own century. So deep was the love of Dymphna for her unfortunate parent that she has spent her time in heaven curing mentally ill people. She has for this reason rightly deserved the title of the patron saint of those suffering from nervous ailments and mental afflictions.

The devout Catholic villagers of Gheel diagnosed the unnatural father as insane while they labelled Dymphna “Saint and erected a shrine over her remains. The relics of her body were placed in a golden reliquary and transferred to the magnificent church of Saint Dymphna, which was built upon the site of the original burial place. Many miracles began to occur at her shrine. On one occasion a violently insane person was brought to the church and blessed with Dymphna’s relics and was instantly cured. Novenas and applications of her relics brought about many other reported cures. These devotions and wonders continue to this day. Then began those strange pilgrimages of the deranged to pray at Dymphna’s shrine. When they brought their delusions and obsessions to be laid at the tomb of the martyred virgin, they were tenderly cared for by the hospitable villagers. Many of the pilgrims recovered their mental health, as is attested by the ancient records of the community which are still preserved.

This good work had been going on for many years when William, Bishop of Cambray, in 1247, caused an investigation of these remarkable cures. This resulted in the founding of the Infirmary of Saint Elizabeth at Gheel, an institution in charge of the nuns of Saint Augustine, who were brought from Mechlin, a city in north central Belgium. The Infirmary served as a place to care for mentally afflicted persons during their stay in Gheel.

Pilgrimages continued throughout the Middle Ages. Gradually it became an established custom for the pilgrims to remain in village homes while awaiting recovery. The villagers, who seemed to have a sixth sense in handling their strange guests, accepted their vocation as a religious duty.

Canon Peter states in his history of Saint Dymphna’s life: “We can hardly question the efficacy of her intercession being manifested by signs and wonders, frequently wrought among the people who had selected her as their special patroness.’

In 1316 Pope John XXII, in 1410 Pope John XXIII, and in 1431 Pope Eugenius IV testified in Apostolic Documents to the miracles worked through the intercession of Dymphna. She was canonized a saint and May 15 was set as her feast in commemoration of the day on which she was martyred. Her feast day is a national holiday in Belgium and is celebrated with great festivity.

Thus Sovereign Pontiffs and the Bishops have always shown their veneration for Saint Dymphna and have favored with indulgences the church which is built over the saint’s tomb – the tomb which God has favored with so many miracles wrought through her intercession. The afflicted and their friends who have invoked the name of Saint Dymphna have not found her wanting. Since she resisted courageously the insane, raging love of her father God has made her the special protectress oi all who are afflicted with nervous and mental disorders, and many miraculous cures at Gheel have established her in that title.

In 1636 Pope Urban VIII blessed and indulgenced the re-established Confraternity of Saint Dymphna, which exists today. Knowing of what had been done by the Confraternity of Saint Dymphna through the centuries, the late Archbishop John T. McNicholas, of Cincinnati, Ohio, considered it an ideal Confraternity to take over the apostolate of the nervous and insane in our own country. On 23 June 1940, a chapel to Saint Dymphna was dedicated on the Longview Hospital grounds, Cincinnati, and a League in her honor which offers many spiritual benefits has been established by the Archbishop.

The spot on which Saint Dymphna died at Gheel, Belgium, now houses one of the greatest (if not the greatest) medical centers in the world for care and treatment of mentally sick people. Since the thirteenth century it has been their haven of refuge. The population of the town today is only about 18,000, of which about 3,000 are patients. A goodly number of these, if not an actual majority, are being cared for in the homes of the townspeople themselves.

The pilgrimages to the Shrine of Saint Dymphna began in the seventh century and continued throughout the Middle Ages. For generations it has come to be recognized as a sign of good standing in the community to have, or have had patients in ones home. Nearly all the inhabitants of the town of Gheel are members of Saint Dymphna’s League and as such do all they can to assist in the cure of the patients. Religious orders established guest houses at Gheel for the deranged pilgrims; the city councilors erected comfortable brick cottages for the disturbed and the indigent. Thus began that intelligent and benevolent interest in the care of the mentally sick which continues to this day and has culminated in the famous Belgian Family Care Colonies, the great contribution made by Catholicism to psychiatry, which is now being practiced in all major European countries and in North and South America. May devotion to Saint Dymphna become a source of hope not only for those suffering from mental and nervous illness, but also for those whose friends and loved ones are so afflicted. May Our Lady, Health of the Sick and Comforter of the Afflicted, bring this message where it is needed most.

– text from the booklet Saint Dymphna, Patron of the Nervous and Emotionally Disturbed by Father Lawrence George Lovasik, S.V.D., 1961; it has the Imprimatur of + Bishop John Mark Gannon, D.D., D.C.L., LL.D., Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania