Although she is much more well knowns in Catholic circles, St. Dympha is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on May 15th. Much like Agia Markella, she is venerated for victims of incest, sexual abuse, but she is also a great wonder-worker for those suffering from mental illness. Her story is that she was born in 7th century Ireland to a pagan king and his pious Christian wife. Upon turning 14, she consecrated herself to Christ taking on a secret vow of chastity. Her martyrdom began shortly after her mother died. Her father fell into a deep, dark depression after the death of his wife. His kingdom suffering due to the deterioration of his mental state, his advisors urged him to remarry. He sent them his whole kingdom over to find a replacement for his queen. The one who came closest to her beauty and grace was her teen daughter who bore her an uncanny resemblance. The King out of his mind made plans to wed his own daughter. When Dympha learned of her father’s intentions, she swore to uphold her vows and fled his court in the deep of night with her trusted father confessor Father Gerebenus, two servants and the court jester.
They sailed toward the continent and eventually landed in Belgium where they took refuge in the town of Gheel. Oral tradition states that once settled in Gheel, St. Dymphna built a hospice for the poor and sick. This was her downfall, as the King’s snoops followed the money, the coins she took from the royal court, to found the hospice. Once the king’s agents ascertained her whereabouts, he followed to retrieve her. The King Damon ordered his soldiers to kill Father Gerebernus and tried to force her to return to Ireland with him. When she resisted, he drew his sword and decapitated her. She was only 15 when she died. After their martyrdom, Gerebernus and Dymphna were buried in a nearby cave.
However, with time and a strong oral tradition in Europe, Dymphna’s story was woven into numerous folk tales such as “The King Who Wanted To Marry His Daughter,” and “Donkeyskin.” In 1349 during the height of the Middle Ages, a church was dedicated to her memory in Gheel. The town became a pilgrimage for all those who suffered from mental illness, possession, and other emotional distress. “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” (Wikipedia, “Saint Dymphna”). When the church could no longer contain the numbers of mentally ill, the local townspeople began a tradition of hosting them in their houses. This started a tradition for the ongoing care of the mentally ill that has endured for over 700 years. Gheel still stands as an exemplar for the care of the mentally ill and as a bastion of Christian charity. “Never called patients, they are called boarders, and are treated as ordinary and useful members of the town and as members of the host family. They work, most often in menial labor, 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 4000 ‘boarders’ were housed with the town’s inhabitants.
While the Medieval Church erected in her honor, burned down, a more magnificent church consecrated in 1532 still stands on the site her body was buried. St. Dymphna’s legacy demonstrates how mental illness, especially those depressed, can lead productive lives based on humane treatment. Imagine a Gheel experiment could be replicated even for a short period of time in a Christ-loving village? Like Agia Markella, she is a patroness of the victims of sexual abuse and incest, an unfortunate but real cross for many young women.
St Dymphna is also the patron of runaways.
Saint Dymphna pray for us.