Legend of Dymphna

dimphnastatueLegend says that Geel’s system of foster family care for the mentally ill was motivated by events that occurred in the 6th – 7th century, A.D. There are variations on the details of that legend as well as evidence negating the legend itself.   Regardless of the veracity of Dymphna’s story, Geel’s foster family system of care for the mentally ill is a fact and it is forever linked to a legend that goes something like this. . .

 

The Celtic king Damon was married to Odilla, a beautiful Christian woman  When their daughter, Dymphna, was born, the mother arranged for the child to be raised by a priest, Gereberne, and Damon had little to do with her. Then, when Dymphna was in her teens Odilla died.  King Damon was overcome with grief and insisted that his aids find for him another wife as beautiful as Odilla.  After an unsuccessful search, they reminded Damon that he did, in fact, have a beautiful daughter who might be a good replacement for her mother.  Damon liked the idea, but Dymphna and the priest would not accept his incestuous offer and they fled across the North Sea into Belgium. There they hid in the forests outside of Geel, taking refuge in St. Maarten’s chapel. But, Damon did not give up easily and within months he and his soldiers found Dymphna and the priest.  Once again, Damon demanded that Dymphna marry him — or die.  However, even faced with a choice of incest or death, the young woman did not submit to her father’s madness and, near the chapel, Dymphna allowed herself to be beheaded.

Over the years, the site of her martyrdom, came to be associated with miraculous cures and, in 1247, based on a history of reported miracles and the legend of Dymphna’s determination not to yield to her father’s madness, she was canonized as the patron saint of the mentally ill. With her sainthood assuring a continued influx of pilgrims seeking religious treatment, in 1286, a guest house hospital was built near the site of the chapel to accommodate the pilgrims.  As pilgrims continued to arrive in Geel, a new church building was begun in 1349.  Though the church suffered fire and storm over the years, the present Church of St. Dymphna was completed in 1749 and still stands today.  A sickroom was first added to the church in 1480.  But, there were still more pilgrims than could be accommodated.  And so, in about the 15th century, a practical solution was found.when the church canons instructed local villagers to house overflow pilgrims.  Many pilgrims, even after their treatment, stayed on as long-term boarders in Geel, and a new legend was born.  The legend of St. Dymphna grew from an oral history.  Whatever “facts” might be associated with the start of that legend seem to be inconsequential in the face of a new documented legend:  Geel’s legendary, centuries old system of foster family care for the mentally ill.  (see Geel Time Line for detailed information)