St. Dymphna

Are you crazy? Meet your patron.  Saint Dymphna was the daughter of a pagan king in Ireland during the seventh century. When her mother (who had passed on her exquisite beauty to her daughter) died, the pagan king wanted to marry his own daughter. Dymphna, who had secretly become a Christian, fled to Antwerp with the help of two servants and her confessor, Father Gerebernus. They set up their abode in the village of Gheel, next to the church of St. Martin (later to be rededicated to Saint Dymphna). Dymphna’s father eventually found them. When his offer was still rejected, he ordered his servants to kill the priest, while he himself struck off his daughter’s head. When their bodies (hidden in a cave) were found, Saint Dymphna was buried in the church in Gheel, while the body of Saint Gerebernus was taken to Xanten.

Perhaps because of the unnatural behavior of her father, Saint Dymphna had been invoked from time immemorial against insanity. There have been numerous accounts of miracles worked through her intercession since the Middle Ages. Since at least the thirteenth century, there has been a sort of colony for the insane at Gheel, where the shrine of Saint Dymphna draws numerous pilgrims. The harmless insane (known as “innocents”), brought thither by their relatives, are taken into the homes of the villagers. There they are treated with great kindness as part of the family and take part in all their trades and agricultural labors.

For quite thirteen centuries the insane have walked [the streets of Gheel], and the peasants’ familiarity with the whims and caprices of its guests eliminates every look and tone that might point to any inequalities of condition, and in time the newcomer will act as he sees others act. No notice is taken of their presence, the usual vocations are neither interrupted nor modified on their account, and thus uncontradicted and unnoticed, the incentive for introspection is removed; they  lose sight of the fact that they differ from those about them, and the first step towards recovery is taken. (Gheel, the Insane Colony of Belgium, J. H. Gore, c. 1899)

Placed according to their needs, they become so attached to their nurse-family that, upon a cure, they do not wish to leave. This type of treatment produced such good results that, in 1850, it was formally organized into a system of out-patient care with medical supervision. At the beginning of the 1900s, anywhere from fifteen hundred to two thousand harmless insane could be found in the area.

Saint Dymphna is represented in Catholic art as a princess holding a sword, and often with a fettered demon at her feet. She is the patroness of runaways, diabolic possessions, asylums, and mental health workers; and she is invoked against epilepsy, sleepwalking, and insanity. Her feast day is kept on May 15th.