St. Dympna

(Seventh century?; feastday May 15)

The Belgian town of Gheel is 25 miles from Antwerp. Seven hundred years ago the remains were rediscovered there, in two ancient sarcophagi, of the martyrs St. Dympna and St. Gerebernus. A strange phenomenon is said to have occurred after the finding of the tombs. A number of epileptics, insane people, and those under diabolical influence were cured in connection with the relics of Dympna.

Ever since, she has been invoked on behalf of such persons. Gheel itself subsequently built an infirmary for the mentally ill, and today it boasts a state mental sanitarium that practices advanced types of care for its patients. Most of them are able to board with neighborhood farmers. Practically members of these “foster families”, they help with the chores to the extent of their ability.

Much more is known of Dympna in her heavenly career than in her earthly one. Her legend, probably based on folklore, asserts that she was the daughter of a Celtic pagan king, whether from Ireland or Great Britain or Brittany. When her Christian mother died, her father became inordinately attached to his own daughter, and desirous of marrying her. Dympna’s confessor, Father Gerebernus, advised the troubled princess to take flight from this unnatural proposal. Accompanied, therefore, by the priest and the court jester and his wife, she crossed to Belgium. The four then went from Antwerp to the site of the present Gheel, planning to set up as hermits at a little nearby chapel.

Meanwhile, however, the royal father had discovered the departure of the fugitives and set out after them. Spies helped him locate them at their hermitage. The king first tried to persuade his daughter with sweet talk to return with him. She refused, and Gerebernus supported her. The tyrannical king therefore ordered his companions to kill both of them. The companions had no scruple about assassinating St. Gerebernus, but boggled at laying hands on Princess Dympna. The king therefore took matters into his own hands, and beheaded his daughter with his own sword. The bodies were left unburied, but they were later laid to rest at the site of their death.

The body of St. Dympna is preserved in a silver reliquary in the Gheel church named in her honor. Only the head of St. Gerebernus is enshrined at Gheel, the rest of his relics having been moved to the town of Sonsbeck in the German diocese of Muenster. Both were true martyrs in that they died in defense of the Christian virtue of purity.

On St. Dympna’s annual feastday hundreds of pilgrims, those in good health as well as those suffering mental maladies, come to the tomb of St. Dympna as pilgrims. Veneration of the princess has spread to other countries, too, especially in connection with the care of the mentally disturbed. Thus, the state mental hospital at Massillon in Ohio, is the site of the American national shrine of St. Dympna as heavenly intercessor on behalf of the victims of mental or nervous ailments.

Devotion to the little virgin martyr is a reminder that God loves the mentally diseased as much as those who are sound in body and mind.

Maybe He loves them even more.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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