A friend recently told me she was praying to St Dymphna for her mother, who is suffering from a mental illness, since there is a tradition of praying to that saint for the mentally ill. Who is St Dymphna?
THE first thing to say is that the story of St Dymphna, also spelled Dympna and Dimpna, is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, but there is no question of a tradition of invoking her for the mentally ill.
The earliest historical account of veneration of the saint dates from the middle of the 13th century in Belgium, where the Irish saint Dymphna died and was buried in the seventh century.
The author of the account, a canon of the church of St Aubert at Cambrai, wrote a life of the saint commissioned by the Bishop of Cambrai, Guy I (1238–1247).
He states expressly that the basis for his biography was oral tradition.
In any case, he acknowledges that St Dymphna had been venerated for many years in a church in Gheel, in the province of Antwerp in Belgium.
According to the account, Dymphna was born in Ireland in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan Irish king named Damon and a devout, beautiful Catholic mother.
When Dymphna was only 14, her mother died.
Damon loved his wife dearly and after her death his mental health declined greatly.
When at length he decided to remarry he looked for a woman who resembled his deceased wife, but none could be found.
He then began to desire his daughter who bore a strong resemblance to her mother.
When Dymphna learned of her father’s intentions she fled Ireland along with her elderly confessor Fr Gerebernus and two servants.
They sailed to the continent and landed in Belgium, where they took up residence near the chapel of St Martin in the town of Gheel.
According to one tradition, St Dymphna built a hospice there for the poor and sick of the region.
After some time her father sent some of his men to try to find her, and since she had used coins from Ireland this allowed them to trace her to Gheel.
They reported this to Damon, who then went to Belgium to try to take Dymphna back to Ireland. When she resisted, Damon had his soldiers kill Fr Gerebernus and then, in a fit of rage, he drew his sword and cut off Dymphna’s head.
She was only 15 at the time.
The people of the town buried the two bodies in a cave near Gheel.
Years later, when it was planned to transfer the remains to a more suitable place, workmen found the bones in two sarcophagi, one of which had a red tile with the inscription “Dympna”. According to the tradition, immediately after the discovery of the bodies a number of people who had visited the tomb and were suffering from epilepsy and various mental illnesses were cured. This is apparently the origin of the custom of praying to her for those with mental illnesses.
The remains of St Dymphna were put in a silver reliquary in a church named after her in Gheel, while those of St Gerebernus were transferred to Xanten, an historic town in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.
In 1489 the church of St Dymphna in Gheel was destroyed by fire.
It was replaced by a magnificent structure, built on the site where her body was first buried. It was consecrated in 1532 and still stands today.
St Dymphna’s feast is celebrated on May 15, where it appears in the Roman martyrology.
She is venerated not only by Catholics, but also by the Eastern Orthodox.
She is invoked as the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill and those suffering from neurological disorders. She is also the patron saint of victims of incest.
St Dymphna is often depicted in artworks with a sword in her hand and a devil in chains at her feet.