Dympna (fl. 650 CE)

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Dympna (fl. 650 ce)

Martyr and patron saint of mental illness, epilepsy, possession by the devil, and sleepwalkers. Name variations: Dimpna. Born the daughter of a pagan Irish, British or Armorican king and a Christian princess.

Buried in two marble sarcophagi, the bodies of St. Dympna and St. Gerebernus were discovered in Gheel, 25 miles from Antwerp, in the 13th century. Dympna's body now rests in a silver reliquary located in a church that bears her name. Gerebernus' head also resides there, separated from his other remains which were relocated to Sonsbeck in the diocese of Münster. The folklore of many European countries recounts a story of Dympna that describes her as the daughter of a pagan king (Irish, British or Armorican) and a Christian princess. Dympna was baptized and instructed in the Christian faith before her mother died when Dympna was still very young. The king had idolized his wife, and as Dympna grew up her remarkable resemblance to her mother is said to have invoked an incestuous lust in her father. St. Gerebernus, her confessor, advised her to flee so as to suffer no more danger.

Dympna was accompanied by St. Gerebernus and attended by the court jester and his wife when she boarded a ship en route to Antwerp. It would only be a matter of time, however, before the king would track them down. Once ashore, Dympna's party headed southeast over wild forest country until arriving at a small oratory dedicated to St. Martin. There, they built a site that is now the location of the town of Gheel, and prepared to live as solitaries.

Dympna's father in the meantime arrived in Antwerp. From there, he sent out spies who located the fugitives by way of the coins, similar to those that the spies offered, used by Dympna's group. The king came upon his daughter by surprise and attempted to convince her to return with him. Dympna, supported by St. Gerebernus, refused. Ordered by the king to kill them both, his attendants murdered the priest, then hesitated. The king's own hand held the sword that then cut off his daughter's head. Left exposed, the bodies were then buried by unknown hands, thought by some to be angels.

It is said that when the relics of St. Dympna were elevated, many epileptics and people suffering from possession who visited her shrine were restored to normal health. Since that time, Dympna has been regarded as the patron saint of the mentally ill and those suffering from epilepsy. As mental illness was at one time associated with diabolical possession, she has been invoked to help those suffering from possession by the devil, and because sleepwalking was likewise attributed to possession by evil spirits she has also been invoked against this condition as well.

The inhabitants of Gheel have become known for the care they have taken of the mentally ill. An infirmary was built to serve those so afflicted as early as the 13th century, and an excellent state sanatorium was located in Gheel for their care and supervision. Residing in the homes of farmers and local residents to whom they give their labor and with whom they share family life, the majority of the mentally ill in Gheel were said to lead contented, productive lives.