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A patron saint for mental health

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St. Dymphna (7th century)

Feast day: May 15

In the ninth century, the bones of St. Dymphna, a martyr, were discovered outside the town of Gheel in present-day Belgium. Large crowds turned out for the removal of the saint’s relics from her grave to a shrine. It was believed that at such a momentous event, the saint’s intercession would be especially powerful and God would work miracles for the saint’s sake. 

As the procession bearing St. Dymphna’s relics passed through town, residents and pilgrims who suffered from various mental and emotional illnesses suddenly found themselves healed. The people of Gheel took this as a sign that St. Dymphna wished to be invoked as the patron saint of troubled souls. In her honor, the town of Gheel built a hospital for people with a variety of mental illnesses; the hospital is still in operation.

Since the first account of St. Dymphna’s life was written 600 years after her death, it is probably more legend than fact. According to the story, Dymphna was the daughter of Damon, a pagan Irish king. When Dymphna was in her teens, she and her mother converted to Christianity; they were both baptized by Father Gerebernus, a priest who became their chaplain and was later named a saint.

Soon thereafter, Dymphna’s mother died. The sudden loss of his beloved wife unhinged Damon. Since Dymphna bore a close physical resemblance to her mother, Damon decided that he would marry his daughter. 

To escape her unbalanced father and the threat of incest, Dymphna, along with Father Gerebernus, set sail for Europe. They went ashore in present-day Belgium, and settled in Gheel. But Damon followed them. He beheaded his daughter, while his bodyguard murdered Gerebernus. 

The people of Gheel placed the saints’ bodies in two plain stone sarcophagi and buried them inside a cave. Portions of the sarcophagi have survived and are displayed in Gheel.

Beginning in the 14th century, the doctors and administrators of the hospital at Gheel began a revolutionary form of treatment. Rather than keep the mentally ill locked up in the hospital, the doctors found villagers who were willing to welcome the patients into their homes, treat them as part of the family, and give them gainful employment on a farm or learning a trade. The people of Gheel referred to their guests as boarders, not patients. Some stayed for a few months, others remained in Gheel for the rest of their lives.

In the 19th century, Theodorus van Gogh tried to persuade his artistically brilliant son, Vincent, to go to Gheel for treatment (Vincent van Gogh suffered from recurring psychotic episodes). Vincent would not seek the help he needed, and in 1890, at age 37, the artist killed himself.

According to Eugeen Roosens, author of Mental Patients in Town Life: Gheel, Europe's First Therapeutic Community, the number of boarders reached its peak in 1938, when 3,736 guests were living and working in town. Today the number hovers around 500. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life and Saints Behaving Badly.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017