A Brief Story of St. Dymphna,
Patron of Victims of Nervous Disorders*
The success of the Colony of Gheel, Belgium,
all these years can be attributed to
the intercession of St. Dymphna.
ISLE OF SAINTS has long been a title
popularly given to the island evangelized by St. Patrick, which nestles in the
blue waters of the Atlantic. And appropriately it is so called for the names of
the Irish saints would more than fill the Church's calendar. Yet it is to be regretted
that Catholics for the most part are entirely unfamiliar with so many of these
glorious saints, yes, even ignorant of their very names. One such forgotten or
unknown saint, who, on account of her spotless virtue and glorious martyrdom,
is sometimes referred to as the "Lily of Fire," is St. Dymphna. True,
the records of the life and martyrdom of this holy virgin are for the most part
meager and unsatisfactory, but sufficient is known regarding the principal faces
of her life and of her many well-authenticated miracles to attest to an exalted
St. Dymphna was born in the 7th century,
when Ireland was almost universally Catholic. Yet, strange to say, her father,
a petty king of Oriel, was still a pagan. Her
mother, a descendant of a noble family, was, on the other hand, a devout Christian.,
who was remarkable both for her piety and her great beauty. Dymphna was, like
her mother, a paragon of beauty, and a most sweet and winning child, the "jewel"
of her home. Every affection and attention was lavished upon her from birth. Heaven,
too, favored the child with special graces. Dymphna was early placed under the
care and tutelage of a pious Christian woman, who prepared her for baptism, which
was conferred by the saintly priest Father Gerebran. The latter seems to have
been a member of the household, and later taught little Dymphna her letters along
with the truths of religion. Dymphna was a bright and eager pupil, and advanced
rapidly in wisdom and grace. When still very young, Dymphna, like so many other
nobel Irish maidens before and after her, being filled with fervor and 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.
It was not long, however, until an unexpected
cloud overshadowed the happy childhood of the beautiful girl. She lost her good
mother by death. Many were the secret tears she shed over this bereavement, but
at the same time she found great comfort in the Divine Faith which, though she
was still of a tender age, already had taken deep root.
Dymphna's father, too, greatly mourned
his deceased wife and for a long time continued prostrate with grief. At length
he was persuaded by his counselors to seek solace in a second marriage. So he
commissioned certain ones of his court to seek out for him a lady who would be
like his first spouse in beauty and character. After visiting many countries in
vain, the messengers returned saying that they could find none so charming and
amiable as his own lovely daughter, Dymphna. Giving ear to their base suggestion,
the king conceived the evil design of marrying Dymphna. With persuasive and flattering
words he manifested his purpose to her. Dymphna, as may be expected, was greatly
horrified at the suggestion, and asked for a period of forty days to consider
the proposal. She immediately betook herself to Father Gerebran, who advised her
to flee from her native country, and since the danger was imminent, he urged her
to make no delay.
With all speed, therefore, she set out
for the continent, accompanied by Father Gerebran, the court jester and his wife.
After a favorable passage, they arrived on the coast near the present city of
Antwerp. Having stopped for a short rest, they resumed their journey and came
to a little village named Gheel. Here they were hospitably received and began
to make plans for establishing their future abode at this place.
The king, in the meantime, having discovered
Dymphna's flight, was fearfully angry, and immediately set out with his followers
in search of the fugitives. After some time, they were traced to Belgium and their
place of refuge was located. At first, Dymphna's father tried to persuade her
to return with him, but Father Gerebran sternly rebuked him for his wicked intentions,
whereupon he gave orders that Father Gerebran should be put to death. Without
delay, his wicked retainers laid violent hands upon the priest and struck him
on the neck with a sword. With one blow of the steel, the head was severed from
the shoulders and another glorious martyr went to join the illustrious heroes
of Christ's kingdom.
Further attempts on the part of Dymphna's
father to induce her to return with him proved fruitless. With undaunted courage
she spurned his enticing promises and scorned his cruel threats. Infuriated by
her resistance, the father drew a dagger from his belt and he himself struck off
the head of his child. Recommending her soul to the mercy of God, the holy virgin
fell prostrate at the feet of her insanely raving father. Thus the glorious crown
of martyrdom was accorded to St. Dymphna in the fifteenth year of her age, on
the fifteenth day of May, between 620 and 640. The day of her death has been assigned
as her feastday.
The records of Dymphna's life and death
say that the bodies of the two martyred saints lay on the ground for quite some
time after their death, until the inhabitants of Gheel removed them to a cave,
which was the customary manner of interment in that part of the world at the time
of the martyrdoms. But after several years had elapsed, the villagers, recalling
their holy deaths, decided to give the bodies a more suitable burial. When the
workmen removed the heap of black earth at the cave's entrance, great was their
astonishment to find two most beautiful tombs, whiter than snow, which were carved
from stone, as if by angel hands. When the coffin of St. Dymphna was opened there
was found lying on her breast a red tile bearing the inscription:
"Here lies the holy virgin and martyr, Dymphna."
The remains of the saint were placed
in a small church. Later necessity obliged the erection of the magnificent "Church
of St. Dymphna," which now stands on the site where the bodies were first
buried. St. Dymphna's relics repose there in a beautiful golden reliquary.
and cures began to occur in continually increasing numbers. Gradually St.
Dymphna's fame as patroness of victims of nervous diseases and mental disorders
was spread from country to country. More and more mentally afflicted persons were
brought to the shrine by relatives and friends, many coming in pilgrimages from
far-distant places. Novenas wer made, and St. Dymphna's relic was applied to the
patients. The remarkable cures reported caused confidence in the saint to grow
daily. At first the patients were lodged in a small annex built onto the church.
Then gradually it came about that the patients were place in the homes of the
families living in Gheel. From this beginning Gheel developed into a town world-famed
for its care of the insane and mentally afflicted. An institution, called the
"Infirmary of St. Elizabeth," which was conducted by the Sisters of
St. Augustine was later built for the hospital care of the patients. Most of the
latter, after some time spent in the institution, are placed in one or other of
the families of Gheel, where they lead a comparatively normal life. Every home
in Gheel is proud to welcome to its inmost family circle such patients as are
ready to return to the environment of family life. Generations of experience have
given to the people of Gheel an intimate and tender skill in dealing with their
charges, and their remarkable spirit of charity and Christlike love for these
afflicted members of society gives to our modern-day world, so prone to put its
whole reliance on science and to forge the principles of true Christian charity,
a lesson the practice of which would do much to restore certain types of mentally
afflicted individuals to an almost normal outlook on life.
Renowned psychiatrists are in full agreement
with this statement, and testify that a surprisingly large number of patients
could leave mental institutions if they could be assured of a sympathetic reception
in the world, such as the people of Gheel take pride in showing. In fact, psychiatrists
state that institutions can help certain cases only to a given extent, and when
that point is reached, they must have help from persons outside the institution
if the progress made in the institution is to have fruition. Gheel is the living
confirmation of this statement and an exemplar of the Gospel teachings on charity.
*Reprint from Tabernacle and Purgatory, published
by Benedictine Convent Sisters, Clyde, Mo., May, 1946.