Saint Dymphna: image from holy card
|The Lily of Éire|
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church,
Eastern Orthodox Church
|Attributes||crown, sword, lily, lamp|
|Patronage||mental disorders, neurological disorders, runaways, victims of incest|
Saint Dymphna (also: Dympna, Dimpna, Damhnait, Damnat, from Gaelic Damh=stag and ait=little, i.e. "fawn".) was the daughter of a pagan Irish king and his Christian wife in the 7th century who was murdered by her father. The story of St. Dymphna was first recorded in the thirteenth century by a canon of the Church of St. Aubert at Cambrai, commissioned by the Bishop of Cambrai, Guy I (1238–1247). The author expressly states that his writings were based upon a longstanding oral tradition and a persuasive history of inexplicable and miraculous healings of the mentally ill.
Life and death
Dymphna was born in Ireland during the 7th century. Dymphna's father Damon, a petty king of Oriel, was pagan, but her mother was a devout Christian. When Dymphna was around 14 years old, she consecrated herself to Christ, taking 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 a bride as beautiful as his deceased wife was procured for him. After searching fruitlessly, Damon began to desire his daughter, because of the strong resemblance she bore 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 Belgium, where they took refuge in the town of Gheel. (also Geel)
One tradition states that once settled in Gheel, St. Dymphna built a hospice for the poor and sick of the region. Ironically, 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. Damon sent his agents to pursue his daughter and her companions. When their hiding place was discovered, Damon travelled to Gheel to recover his daughter. Damon ordered his soldiers to kill Father 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. After Dymphna and Gerebernus were martyred, the residents of Gheel buried them in a nearby cave. Years later, they decided to move the remains to a more suitable location.
The historical basis for this story is uncertain. There are variations in the legend and it has counterparts in the folktales of many European countries, such as The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter and Donkeyskin. The events of Saint Dymphna's life may have become entwined with these myths in the centuries after her death when her story was told orally.
In 1349 a church honouring her was built in Gheel. 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 700 years and is still studied and envied today. Patients were, and still are, taken into the inhabitants of Gheel's homes. Never called patients, they are called boarders, and are treated as ordinary and useful members of the town. 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. 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.
The remains of Saint Dymphna were later put into a silver reliquary and placed in the Gheel church named in her honour. The remains of Saint Gerebernus were moved to Xanten, Germany. During the late 15th century the original St. Dymphna's Church in Gheel burned, and necessity obliged the erection of the magnificent "Church of St. Dymphna," which was consecrated in 1532 and now still stands on the site where her body was first buried.
A phenomenon is said to have occurred immediately after the finding of the tombs. A number of people with epilepsy, mental illnesses and persons under evil influences who had visited at the tomb of Dymphna were cured. Ever since that time, she has been invoked on behalf of such people.
St. Dymphna's feast day is 15 May.
Saint 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 symbolizes her martyrdom, but in the older versions seen on numerous statues and stained glass images, her sword is pricking the neck of a demon; symbolizing her title of Demon Slayer. She is also often portrayed holding a lamp, with the chained devil at her feet.
Some modern holy cards portray Dymphna in green and white, holding a book and white lilies.
St. 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.
The US National Shrine of St. Dymphna is located at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Massillon, Ohio. St. Dymphna's Special School is located in Ballina, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland and operates under the patronage of Western Care Association.
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