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Saint Dymphna

From Academic Kids

St. Dymphna is traditionally held to be the daughter of a pagan Irish chief and his Christian wife in the 7th century. When her mother died, her father Damon scoured the world for a suitable and equally beautiful replacement. After the search failed, his advisors pointed out to the chief that his teenage daughter had inherited her mother's looks. Driven mad by grief, Damon made advances on Dymphna. Together with her confessor, the elderly priest St. Gerebernus, she fled to Belgium. There they took refuge at a chapel near the present day site of Gheel, not far from Antwerp. However Damon's spies tracked them down and the chief set out after them. Confronting them at Gheel, he decapitated Gerebernus and begged Dymphna to return with him to Ireland. When she refused, he killed her in a rage. Locals later buried the two bodies.

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. Dymphna enters the historical record in the 13th century after a local bishop commissioned her biography. Although it is clear that he was prompted by already existing practices of veneration by locals, it is also clear the story is derived entirely from oral tradition. Fragments of two sarcophagi that supposedly bore the bodies of Dymphna and Gerebernus were found in the area, as well as a brick inscribed "DYMPNA" that was supposedly lay in one of the coffins. This may have prompted the local traditions. The body of St. Dymphna is held in a silver reliquary in the Gheel church named in her honor, although the original church burnt down in the 15th century.

The burial place of St. Dymphna has long been associated with accounts of miraculous cures of mental illness. An infirmary was built there in the 13th century and to this day Gheel hosts a world-class sanatorium. A peculiarity of the treatment at Gheel from the earliest days is that patients are hosted with local residents, living and working alongside them. This is remarkable considering the attitudes of indifference and hostility to the insane of the time.

St. Dymphna is also known as "Dimpna" or "Dympna" and may be synonymous with the Irish saints Davets and Damhnait (Damhnade). Her feast day is the May 15 and she is the patron saint of insanity and mental illness professionals.

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