Today, May 15, is the feast day of St. Dymphna, a teenage martyr who is believed to have lived in the seventh century.
Dymphna resisted the incestuous sexual abuse and advances of her father, and ultimately her resistance infuriated her father to the point of him beheading her.
Although she lived in a very different era than our twenty-first century world, Dymphna’s adamant resistance to this sexual abuse makes her a striking candidate for a patron saint of the #MeToo movement.
St. Dymphna’s Story:
According to Christian tradition, Dymphna was born in Ireland in the seventh century. Dymphna’s father Damon, a petty king of Oriel, was a pagan, but her mother was a devout Christian.
When Dymphna was 14 years old, she consecrated herself to Christ and took a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter, her mother died. Damon had loved his wife deeply, and in the aftermath of her death his mental health sharply deteriorated. Eventually the king’s counselors pressed him to remarry. Damon agreed, but only on the condition that his bride would be as beautiful as his deceased wife. After searching fruitlessly, Damon began to desire his daughter because of her strong resemblance to her mother.
When Dymphna learned of her father’s intentions she swore to uphold her vows, and fled his court along with her confessor Father Gerebernus, two trusted servants and the king’s fool. Together they sailed towards the continent, eventually landing in what is present-day Belgium, where they took refuge in the town of Geel.
One tradition states that once settled in Geel, Dymphna built a hospice for the poor and sick of the region. However, it was through the use of her wealth that her father would eventually ascertain her whereabouts, as some of the coins used enabled her father to trace them to Belgium. Damon sent his agents to pursue his daughter and her companions. When their hiding place was discovered, Damon traveled to Geel to recover his daughter. Damon ordered his soldiers to kill Gerebernus and tried to force Dymphna to return with him to Ireland, but she resisted. Furious, Damon drew his sword and struck off his daughter’s head. She was said to have been 15 years old when she died.
After Dymphna and Gerebernus were martyred, the residents of Geel buried them in a nearby cave. Years later, they decided to move the remains to a more suitable location. Some of her remains can be found today at the shrine to Dymphna in Massilon, Ohio.
In 1349 a church honouring Dymphna was built in Geel. 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. Soon the sanctuary for the mad was again full to overflowing, and the townspeople began taking them into their own homes. Thus began a tradition for the ongoing care of the mentally ill that has endured for over 500 years and is still studied and envied today. Patients were, and still are, taken into the inhabitants of Geel’s homes. Never called patients, they are called boarders, and are treated as ordinary and useful members of the town. They are treated as members of the host family. They work, most often in menial labour, 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 4,000 boarders were housed with the town’s inhabitants.
(text adapted from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License).
IMAGE CREDIT: Gerard Seghers – Martyrdom of St Dymphna and St Gerebernus – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com