Feast Day: May 15
According to tradition, Dymphna, the daughter of pagan king Damon of Ireland, was born in the 7th century and secretly baptized and consecrated herself to Christ as a youth. Dymphna’s mother died when the saint was just 14 years old. Distraught with grief, her father searched for someone to replace his beloved wife. Failing in his search, Damon’s mental state deteriorated and he became attracted to Dymphna, who resembled her mother. When Damon asked her to marry him, Dymphna refused and escaped to the town of Geel, Belgium, with her confessor, Father Gerebernus. Damon followed her and insisted she marry him. When Father Gerebernus objected, Damon had him beheaded. Dymphna persisted in rejecting his proposal, and the enraged Damon beheaded her with his own sword. Their bodies were buried by local residents nearby.
Tradition holds that shortly after her death, five mentally ill people slept the night where Dymphna was killed and were cured when they awoke. Stories about healing of the mentally ill at the site spread through the centuries and a church honoring Dymphna was built in 1349. Pilgrims from throughout Europe arrived seeking cures, and the church added lodging for 1,500 visitors. As this overflowed, the residents of Geel began boarding guests in their homes. Their hospitality grew into a tradition of welcoming the mentally ill and disabled as family members who live with them permanently. This ‘family style’ of care continues in Geel today and inspired changes in the treatment of people with mental illness and disorders that began in the 20th century.