Saint Dymphna is an example of a teenager so devoted to God that she ran away from her father to a foreign land before her father found her and beheaded her.
Born to Irish royalty in the Kingdom of Oriel (now called County Tyrone, Ireland) during the 7th century, St. Dymphna became known as the “Lily of Éire” (meaning Lily of Ireland). She had been baptized in secret because of the pagan belief of her father, King Damon. She was introduced to the Catholic faith by her Christian mother, the queen, who taught her to love Jesus and Mary dearly and to live a life of purity. When St. Dymphna was only 14 years old, she consecrated herself to Christ and took a vow of chastity. After the queen’s death, King Damon became severely depressed and emotionally unstable. At the urging of his advisors, he searched for a new wife. Unable to find a new wife, he decided to marry his own daughter, St. Dymphna, because she looked so much like her extraordinarily beautiful mother. Horrified by her father’s wicked proposal, she adamantly refused it and fled from the kingdom together with her confessor, Father Gerebernus, the court jester, and his wife. After a roughly 1,400-kilometer journey, they settled in Geel, Belgium, where she performed her ministry for the mentally unwell, and, eventually, sowed the seeds of faith through her martyrdom.
St. Dymphna is honored as the patron saint of anxiety, stress, mental disorders, depression, and other neurological disorders. She is also invoked as the patron saint of runaways and survivors of incest and sexual assault. Her name means “poetess.” Here are 10 interesting facts about the chaste and virtuous St. Dymphna.
#1 Saint Dymphna Died in 620 AD After Being Beheaded by Her Father
St. Dymphna died after her father, King Damon, hunted her down. He discovered that she was in Geel after coins from King Damon’s kingdom were found in Geel. He and his men set off to Geel in pursuit of his daughter to again convince her to marry him. Unshaken in her covenant of chastity with God, St. Dymphna refused her father’s proposal. Father Gerebernus strongly chastised the King for his sinful demand, and so King Damon ordered his men to behead Father Gerebernus. King Damon himself beheaded St. Dymphna with his sword. She was only 15 years old at that time.
#2 Saint Dymphna Was “Canonized” in the 7th Century
St. Dymphna was recognized as a saint since the 7th century, which is considered to be equivalent to her date of canonization. In his vita of St. Dymphna, Bishop Guy I recognized her as a saint from the 7th century because of the healing of many people with mental illnesses in Gheel. He was the bishop of Cambrai (France) from 1238 AD to 1247 AD. St. Dymphna was never formally canonized, as she lived in a time called “pre-congregation,” which was before the creation of today’s formal process of canonization where the Catholic Church decides whether someone is worthy of universal veneration.
#3 Saint Dymphna Is Venerated by Pilgrims to Her Shrine
Every year, during the feast of St. Dymphna and on the Tuesday after Pentecost, numerous pilgrims visit her shrine at the Church of St. Dymphna in Geel, Belgium. In Geel, there is also a fraternity under her name.
#4 Saint Dymphna’s Symbols and Iconography Portray Her as a Demon Slayer
St. Dymphna is traditionally portrayed wearing a crown, dressed in royal robes, and often holding a Bible and a sword. She is also often shown in green and white clothes, holding white lilies as a symbol of purity, and often a Bible with a shamrock and a Celtic harp on the cover indicating her Irish origins. In the older versions, her sword is pricking the neck of a demon, symbolizing her title of “Demon Slayer” because she was known to conquer the “demons” of those with mental illnesses. She is also shown holding a lamp, with the chained devil at her feet.
#5 Saint Dymphna’s Feast Day Celebration Is on May 15th
Her feast day is May 15, the date of her martyrdom. She shares this feast day with Saint Gerebernus who was martyred with her on that same day. It is celebrated in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
#6 Saint Dymphna’s Remains Are in Geel, Belgium
Her sarcophagus is in the Church of St. Dymphna in Geel, Belgium.
In the 13th century, St. Dymphna’s body, along with that of her devoted confessor, St. Gerebernus, were believed to have been found in a marble sarcophagus, hidden in a cave in the middle of the woods. Her coffin was transported into the Church of St. Dymphna, while the remains of St. Gerebernus were transferred to Xanten, Germany.
#7 Major Shrines of Saint Dymphna Are Located in Belgium and the United States
St. Dymphna’s main shrine is at the Church of St. Dymphna. Her remains are interred there in a golden reliquary. The other major shrine is the United States National Shrine of St. Dymphna, which was built at St. Mary’s Church in Massillon, Ohio. It was destroyed by fire in 2015 and reopened in December 2016.
#8 Saint Dymphna Outsmarted Her Father Before Her Escape
When St. Dymphna’s father tried to make her marry him, St. Dymphna asked him for 40 days to make her decision. Thinking that she would agree after 40 days, her father gave her his permission. Guided by the Holy Spirit, she sought Father Gerebernus’ counsel. The priest advised her to flee the country in order to save her purity. It was already too late when her father found out that she was no longer at home.
#9 Saint Dymphna’s Ministry in Geel Was Funded by Her Wealth
St. Dymphna used her wealth to care for the poor and sick of the region, and some records state that she built a hospice for the poor and sick with her wealth.
#10 The “Five Lunatics” Increased Geel’s Popularity as a Healing Place for Mental Illness
The people in Geel practiced a “community psychiatry” approach to mental illness before St. Dymphna’s arrival there, but St. Dymphna’s death and the “Five Lunatics” cemented and expanded its reputation for the healing of those with mental illness. There were “five lunatics” who watched her father behead her and were cured the next day. The news of this miracle spread, and there have been many other miraculous recoveries of people suffering from mental illness in Geel. With the “community psychiatry” approach, those who were ill and went to Geel for treatment were placed in private homes of families in the community, where they lived and were integrated into the community. St. Dymphna’s influence of having compassion for those suffering from mental illness resulted in a treatment called “moral community psychiatry.”
It is said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. True enough, St. Dymphna’s firm resolve to protect her chastity and love for the needy paved the way for the blossoming of a wonderful Catholic community. Her great love for Christ and the Blessed Virgin is like a radiant sun that nurtures the people who feel its warmth. May the life of St. Dymphna inspire the faithful to bring the light of Christ to those who remain the darkness of their anxieties, worries, and mental health issues.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.