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Saint Dymphna
Godfried Maes - The beheading of Saint Dymphna.jpg
The beheading of Saint Dymphna by Godfried Maes
The Lily of Éire
Born7th century
Died7th century
Geel, Belgium
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church
Feast 15 May (30 May in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum)
Attributes crown, sword, lily, lamp
Patronage mental disorders, neurological disorders, runaways, victims of incest, depression, anxiety

Saint Dymphna [1] is a Christian saint honoured in Catholic and Orthodox traditions. [2] [3] According to tradition, she lived in the 7th century and was the daughter of a pagan Irish king and his Christian wife. She was murdered by her father.

Eastern Orthodox Church Christian Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second-largest Christian church, with approximately 200–260 million baptised members. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops in local synods, although roughly half of Eastern Orthodox Christians live in Russia. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the Bishop of Rome, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognised by all as primus inter pares of the bishops. As one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East.


The story of Dymphna was first recorded in the 13th century by a canon of the Church of St. Aubert at Cambrai, France. It was commissioned by Guiard of Laon (1238–1248), the Bishop of Cambrai.

Canon (priest) Ecclesiastical position

A canon is a member of certain bodies subject to an ecclesiastical rule.

Aubert of Avranches Bishop of Avranches

Saint Aubert, also known as Saint Autbert, was bishop of Avranches in the 8th century and is credited with founding Mont Saint-Michel.

Cambrai Subprefecture and commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Cambrai is a commune in the Nord department and in the Hauts-de-France region of France on the Scheldt river, which is known locally as the Escaut river.

The author expressly stated that his work was based upon a long-standing oral tradition as well as a persuasive history of miraculous healings of the mentally ill. [4]


Dymphna's name derives from the Irish damh (poet) and suffix -ait (little/feminine), therefore meaning "poetess." It is also spelled Dympna, Dimpna, Dymphnart, Damnat, Damhnait or Dympna. [5] and is pronounced /ˈdɪmfnə/ or /ˈdɪmpnə/ in English and [ˈd̪ˠəu.n̪ˠətʲ] in Irish.

Irish language Goidelic (Gaelic) language spoken in Ireland and by Irish people

Irish is a member of the Goidelic (Gaelic) language branch of the Celtic languages originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is spoken as a first language in substantial areas of counties Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath, and a few other locations, and as a second language by a larger group of non-habitual speakers across the country.

Story of her life and death

According to Christian tradition, Dymphna was born in Ireland in the 7th century. Dymphna's father Damon, a petty king of Oriel, was a pagan, but her mother was a devout Christian.

Ireland Island in north-west Europe, 20th largest in world, politically divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a part of the UK)

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George's Channel. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth.

When Dymphna was 14 years old, she consecrated herself to Christ and took a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter, her mother died. Damon had loved his wife deeply, and in the aftermath of her death his mental health sharply deteriorated. Eventually the king's counsellors pressed him to remarry. Damon agreed, but only on the condition that his bride would be as beautiful as his deceased wife. After searching fruitlessly, Damon began to desire his daughter because of her strong resemblance to her mother.

When Dymphna learned of her father's intentions she swore to uphold her vows, and fled his court along with her confessor Father Gerebernus, two trusted servants and the king's fool. Together they sailed towards the continent, eventually landing in what is present-day Belgium, where they took refuge in the town of Geel. [4]

Geel Municipality in Flemish Community, Belgium

Geel is a city located in the Belgian province of Antwerp, which acquired city status in the 1980s. It comprises Central-Geel which is constituted of 4 old parishes a/o towns: Sint-Amand, Sint-Dimpna, Holven and Elsum. Further on around the center are the parish-towns of Ten Aard (N), Bel (E), Winkelomheide (SE), Stelen, Oosterlo and Zammel (S), Punt (SW) and Larum (W). On December 31, 2016, Geel had a total population of 39,535. The total area is 109.85 km2 (42 sq mi) which gives a population density of 320 inhabitants per km². Geel’s patron saint, the Irish Saint Dymphna, inspired the town’s pioneering de-institutionalized method of care for the mentally ill.

Goswyn van der Weyden, Dymphna, 1505, The Phoebus Foundation Dymphna.jpg
Goswyn van der Weyden, Dymphna, 1505, The Phoebus Foundation

One tradition states that once settled in Geel, Dymphna built a hospice for the poor and sick of the region. However, it was through the use of her wealth that her father would eventually ascertain her whereabouts, as some of the coins used enabled her father to trace them to Belgium. [4] Damon sent his agents to pursue his daughter and her companions. When their hiding place was discovered, Damon travelled to Geel to recover his daughter. Damon ordered his soldiers to kill Gerebernus and tried to force Dymphna to return with him to Ireland, but she resisted. Furious, Damon drew his sword and struck off his daughter's head. She was said to have been 15 years old when she died. [6] After Dymphna and Gerebernus were martyred, the residents of Geel buried them in a nearby cave. Years later, they decided to move the remains to a more suitable location. Some of her remains are at the shrine to Dymphna in Massillon, Ohio, United States. [1]

Medieval traditions

In 1349 a church honouring Dymphna was built in Geel. By 1480, so many pilgrims were coming from all over Europe, seeking treatment for the mentally ill, that the church housing for them was expanded. Soon the sanctuary for the mad was again full to overflowing, and the townspeople began taking them into their own homes. Thus began a tradition for the ongoing care of the mentally ill that has endured for over 500 years and is still studied and envied today. Patients were, and still are, taken into the inhabitants of Geel's homes. Never called patients, they are called boarders, and are treated as ordinary and useful members of the town. [7] They are treated as members of the host family. They work, most often in menial labour, and in return, they become part of the community. [8] Some stay a few months, some decades, some for their entire lives. At its peak in the 1930s, over 4,000 'boarders' were housed with the town's inhabitants. [9] [10]


St. Dymphna Church, Geel, Belgium St-Dymphna church.jpg
St. Dymphna Church, Geel, Belgium

The remains of Dymphna were later put into a silver reliquary and placed in a church in Geel named in her honour. The remains of Gerebernus were moved to Xanten, Germany. [11] During the late 15th century the original St. Dymphna Church in Geel burned down. A second "Church of St. Dymphna" was then built and consecrated in 1532. The church still stands on the site where her body is believed to have first been buried.

According to tradition, miracles occurred immediately after her tomb was discovered. A number of people with epilepsy, mental illness or to have been 'under evil influence' who visited the tomb of Dymphna were said to have been cured. The saint is invoked as patroness against mental illness. [11]

Saint Dymphna's feast day is 15 May. [12]

Dymphna is known as the Lily of Éire, due to her spotless virtue. She is traditionally portrayed wearing a crown, dressed in ermine and royal robes, and holding a sword. In modern versions she holds the sword awkwardly, as it symbolises her martyrdom, but in the older versions seen on numerous statues and stained glass images, her sword is pricking the neck of a demon; symbolising her title of Demon Slayer. She is also often portrayed holding a lamp, with the chained devil at her feet. [13]

Some modern holy cards portray Dymphna in green and white, holding a book and white lilies.


Dymphna is the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and those who suffer neurological disorders – and, consequently, of psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists. She is also the patron saint of victims of incest. [12]

The US National Shrine of St. Dymphna was located at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Massillon, Ohio. [1] It was destroyed by a fire in 2015, and reopened in December 2016. St. Dymphna's Special School is located in Ballina, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland and operates under the patronage of Western Care Association. [14]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 National Shrine of St. Dymphna, Massilon, Ohio
  2. "St. Dymphna" . Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  3. "SAINT DYMPHNA WONDERWORKER OF GHEEL". Saints Mary & Martha Orthodox Monastery. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  4. 1 2 3 "Saint Dymphna: Wonderworker of Gheel, May 15th". Wagener, South Carolina: Saints Mary and Martha Orthodox Monastery. January 2006. Retrieved 31 December 2013.
  5. https://www.libraryireland.com/names/women/damhnait-devnet.php
  6. Benedictine Convent Sisters, Clyde, Missouri, "Tabernacle and Purgatory" May 1946 Archived 12 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Jay, Mike (9 January 2014). "The Geel question". Aeon.
  8. Wells, Karin (9 March 2014). "Psychiatric community care: Belgian town sets gold standard". CBC News. CBC/Radio-Canada. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
  9. Goldstein, J. "Geel, Belgium: A Model of 'Community Recovery'". Birmingham, AL: Psychology Department, Samford University.
  10. Dr.Srole, Hobart/William Smith College, Geneva N.Y.
  11. 1 2 Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Dymphna." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 1 December 2015]
  12. 1 2 "St. Dymphna", Franciscan Mission Associates
  13. Catholic Exchange. com.
  14. St. Dymphna's Special School, Ballina