Died c. 650. Variations of the legend of Saint Dympna are to be found in
the folklore of many European countries. In fact, it is a classic example of
a folktale adapted as the life-story of a saint. In the early 13th century,
the bones of an unknown man and woman were discovered at Gheel near Antwerp,
Belgium. The name Dympna was found on a brick with the coffins and may have
been taken as a variation on the name Saint Damhnait (Damhnade), who was
indeed an Irish virgin.
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, 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. 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 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. Centuries after her death, a bishop of Cambrai, faced with the
growing veneration of Dympna and increasing interest in mental illness,
arranged for her biography to be written by collecting the oral tradition.
Ever since, she has been regarded as the patroness of the mentally ill.
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 labor 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.
Dympna and Gerebernus are buried in two ancient marble sarcophagi, where
they were rediscovered in the 13th century. 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, Delaney, Farmer, Montague,
In art, Saint Dympna is a crowned maiden with a sword and the devil on a
chain. Sometimes she may be shown (1) kneeling before her confessor, Saint
Gerebernus, (2) kneeling at Mass while her father murders the priest
Gerebernus (Roeder), (3) praying in a cloud surrounded by a group of
lunatics bound with golden chains, or (4) being beheaded by the king
(White). The more common image now seen of Saint Dympna shown here
(and in a larger size < http://www.netjava.com/~cigar/images/sdymph.jpg >),
clearly illustrates that she is a virgin (lily) and Irish (note the shamrock
on the book). For an interesting image that has larger cultural
implications, see La Cadena--El Hogar.
Dympna is invoked for mental asylums and nurses of the mentally ill, and
against insanity, mental illness of all types, sleepwalking, epilepsy, and
demoniac possession (Roeder). A lovely set of nine prayers to Saint Dymphna
are worth studying.http://www.webdesk.com/catholic/prayers/dymphna.html
Her feast day is kept in Ireland and Gheel. In the United States, her cultus
centers on her shrine in Ohio, which is next to one of the most modern
hospitals in the world. There is another shrine in New York. The Franciscan
Mission Associates in America conduct a world-wide correspondence in her
name to fund there activities for the poor and suffering, especially in
Central America (Montague).
her biography to be written by collecting the oral tradition. Ever since,
she has been regarded as the patroness of the mentally ill.