4: Saints and symbols
More suitable patron saints for an adult foster care program
This is the forth part of a series. You can find part one here.
As I read various accounts of the history of Geel, I kept believing I would find some new piece of the story and it would all fall into place and I would understand why there was an adult foster care program in Geel. This was the first time I bemoaned my lack of a classical education. I felt like if only I knew classic literature, the history of the Catholic church, and more European history this would all make sense. Instead, it just kept getting weirder.
Let’s take her story from the Book of Saints, because their version is short and is said to be faithful to the first written account of her existence.
“DYMPNA (DYMPHNA) (St.) V.M. (May 15)
(6th cent.) Dympna, the daughter of a Pagan Irish chieftain, but herself secretly a Christian, was forced to fly her country in order to escape the guilty love of her unnatural parent. She settled at Gheel, a village in the present Province of Brabant, and devoted herself to works of charity. Her father pursued her and murdered both the Saint and the old priest who had advised and accompanied her. At her shrine lunatics and those possessed by devils were often miraculously cured ; and in art she is frequently represented as dragging away a devil. She is the Patron Saint of the insane ; and Gheel to-day is famous for asylums for lunatics, which are among the best managed establishments of the sort. St. Dympa is a sixth century Saint ; but exact dates are not ascertainable.”
Some versions are quite long. I made a list of symbols and details:
The name Dymphna means poetess or little deer
Her father is a pagan king
She grew up in the Kingdom of Oriel, also known as Airgíalla, in Ireland
Dymphna was baptized in secret by her Christian mother before her mother died
It’s explained that she objected to committing incest with her father because she’s taken a vow of chastity, which seems super weird to me. It’s as if Christians who haven’t taken a vow of chastity and all pagans are cool with incest and her objection is some unusual thing about her
She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, like Snow White, and the only equal to her dead mother, which is why her father wants to marry her
The priest who suggests she flees and accompanies her is always named, while the king is usually not. In some versions of the story the priest is elderly and in others she’s accompanied by a fool or jester
Dymphna and the priest (and whoever is traveling with them) first land at Antwerp
They stop in Geel because there was a chapel to Saint Martin
Long versions have her founding the hospital and/or living like a hermit
Just about every version has her being tracked down because of her Irish coins. They usually blame a female innkeeper in Westerlo, the town next door
She was beheaded by her father. The priest might have been beheaded or he might have been killed another way, depending on the version
The bodies were left there or put in a cave or buried. Six hundred years they were exhumed1 and found to be in magical sarcophaguses so beautiful they could only have been made by angels.
Quite a few versions say Geel developed around the shrine, implying Westerlo was the town and the beheading(s) took place in the forest.
Since Saint Dymphna seemed like such a poor choice as the patron saint of the mad, I was curious to see if there were more appropriate candidates. A cursory search for similar saints unleashed such an avalanche of relevant saints that I became overwhelmed and realized I needed to stop.2 Before I closed all my open tabs, I found several saints with similar patronages, more relevant connections to hosting a colony of incurables, and with familiar stories and rituals.
Saint John the Apostle is the patron saint of caregivers. When Jesus was dying on the cross he asked John to look after his mother.3 The fact that Saint John served as caregiver to someone else’s mom after abandoning his own family perhaps makes him a fitting patron saint for the adult foster care model.
Canada has its own patron saint of family caregivers, Saint Brother André. He was canonized in 2010 and his reliquary travels. In 2019 I visited the basilica he helped establish in Montreal, visited his shrine, and left without realizing he was the patron saint of family caregivers.
Saints for the mentally ill include:
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre spent his life making continual pilgrimages, was a holy fool, could levitate, and is the patron saint of the homeless
Saint Christina the Astonishing had seizures, returned from the dead, and could fly
Saint Joseph Desa of Cupertino, who had a “childlike nature,” could fly, and is the patron saint of the intellectually disabled
Saint John of God, who spent time in a mental hospital
Saint Oscar Romero, who had obsessive compulsive disorder
Mother Teresa, who lived with depression
Those saints have stories different from Dymphna. Plenty of others share her story or the rituals associated with her remembrance.
There is the priest who was martyred alongside Dymphna, Saint Gerebern. The accounts in Geel don’t mention that he’s also a saint. The church where he’s worshiped in Germany also features a crawling altar, which has been bricked up. Saint Gerebern is known for curing rheumatism, epilepsy, and madness. One Geel historian, Kuyl, says that the town where his shrine is located also once provided adult foster care for the “senseless.” Today the site features the Gerebernus-Haus nursing home, with independent living and a group home for people with dementia.
The earliest depiction of Saint Dymphna appears on a grave marker in Sint-Dimpnakerk from 1449, where she appears to the right of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Saint Catherine became a Christian at 14 and took a vow of chastity. She was tortured and beheaded for refusing to marry the emperor. Angels took her body to a cave near Mount Sinai where the monastery holding her relics is a UNESCO World Heritage site and remains a major pilgrimage site. She’s the saint of a lot of things, including virgins, librarians, and spinsters. Of her extensive list of patronages, the one that stands out to me is language difficulties and tongue problems.
Saint Damhnait, whose story has been entirely forgotten, was erroneously merged with Dymphna. Her chapel is in Ireland, next to the home of Grace O’Malley the Pirate Queen and near the Holy Well of Saint Dymphna, which is said to contain healing waters. The church is a ruin that’s a pilgrimage site for Kathleen Kilbane.
One of Geel’s sister cities is Tydavnet, Ireland, which is called Tigh Damhnata in Irish. It’s named for Saint Damnat or Damhnade, a nun from the 6th century whose staff works as a lie detector. They became sister cities in 1992, despite there supposedly being no connection between Saint Damnat and Saint Dymphna. Tydavnet is home to Saint Dympna’s Holy Well and the Chapel of Saint Dympna. It’s also in the former Kingdom of Oriel.
Saint Brigid was the daughter of an Irish chieftain and a slave who was baptized by Saint Patrick. She was freed because of her inherent goodness and engaged to a bard, which conflicted with her vow of chastity. She prayed to be made ugly to get out of her engagement, which worked. In some versions she pokes out her own eye because no one wants to marry a blind girl. Her other miracles include healing two mute girls.
Saint Bridgid founded a monastery next to a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid. After founding two more monasteries, she invited a hermit to help her run them, Saint Conleth. She also founded a school of art which produced such beautiful things that they could only be the result of angelic skill. Her body parts have been lost, rediscovered, desecrated, and sent to churches in Ireland, France, Germany, Portugal, and Australia. She’s the patron saint of poets and healers. She’s also known as "the Mary of the Gael.”
The story of Saint Mathurin was first written down 600 years after he died in the early 4th century. You might remember him from the Canterbury Tales. After three years of performing exorcisms and miracles in Rome, he died and his body was returned to Larchant. Saint Mathurin’s relics were renowned for curing the mad and “insufferable wives.” He’s the patron saint of buffoons, comic actors, jesters, clowns, sailors, tinmen, and plumbers.
In 1004, the church in Larchant became the possession of Notre-Dame de Paris and they discovered his relics. They built the Saint-Mathurin chapel in Paris, splitting the relics between the two locations. It became a hugely popular pilgrimage route. Saint Mathurin’s fame got a boost by being located along a popular route of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He also had a royal fan base and was visited by Charles IV, Louis XI, Charles VIII, François I, Henri II, Henri III, and Henri IV. The pilgrims stopped coming after the French Revolution, when the relics were destroyed by the Huguenots. Without the influx of pilgrims, the church couldn’t be maintained or repaired. The village returned to an agricultural economy.
Saint Menulphe, also known as Saint Menoux, was the devout son of an Irish king who left home at request of the pope. He stopped to rest in Mailly-sur-Rose and befriended Blaise – an “innocent” or “simpleton” who “could barely speak” – who he protected from being harassed by the villagers. After Melphune died Blaise dug up the coffin and cut a hole in it, so he could stick his head in the coffin and chat with his buddy. Blaise was miraculously healed.
“Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.”
The oldest part of the church dates to the 11th century. While the church is practically abandoned and the town is only home to 1,000 people, supposedly the Église Saint Menoux remains a popular pilgrimage site for those seeking cures for “feeble-mindedness” and headaches.
George Prat explains that the hole, known as a débredinoire, “is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water” which gives a high intensity shock which cures some nervous breakdowns. The term refers to a “disturbed brain.” There are numerous other headache holes in churches.
Saint Dizier in St Dizier l'Évêque, France has been healing afflictions of the head since the 7th or 8th century. The Bishop, his deacon, and his servant were returning from a journey to Baden when they stopped at a church dedicated to Saint Martin. The devil attacked him in the woods and they did battle. Unbelievers fatally wounded him, killed the deacon, and split the skull of his servant. Dizier’s dying act was to heal the servant’s head wound with a crown of brambles. Since madness originates in the head, he became known for curing those afflicted with madness.
The mad would be brought to the church and would spend nine days in the church, with communion wafers and wine as the only sustenance. The priest would make the sign of the cross on him three times with a reliquary containing Saint Dizier’s finger bone. There is a stone carved in the shape of a house called the “stone of fools,” that’s supposedly the original sarcophagus of Saint Dizier. After mass, they were pushed through the opening in the stone of fools by two guards (or guardians).
If they weren’t cured after nine days, they would be sent to stay with a family in the village. They would be immersed in the cold spring of the washhouse twice a day. They would be taken for walks in the countryside. “All of St Dizier was sort of an asylum.”
Supposedly this practice stopped in the 19th century because doctors threatened to sue the local priest for practicing medicine without a license.
“If doctors seek to obtain the support of the administration to close these places of illegal practice of medicine, the episcopal authorities do not always support the priests who try to prolong the curative activity of these sanctuaries. In the 1840s, a doctor and a bishop joined forces to denounce the treatment of the insane at the sanctuary of Saint-Dizier, near Delle in the Belfortain region. In the sanctuaries which remain active, the ritual is symbolically close to asylum therapy: isolation and restraint of the sick in the vaults, baptismal diving. Only the passage of the patient's head into the reliquary hole – the débredinoire (like that of Saint-Menoux in Allier) – really distinguishes this religious cure for madness.”
The washhouse and the stone of fools are still there for interested pilgrims.
The second wife of Henry II – the guy who built the gasthuis in Geel – was the daughter of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. While there is no record of Dymphna being canonized,4 Saint Elisabeth was canonized on 24 May 1235 by Pope Gregory IX. Her story also sounds familiar:
“Following her husband's death, Elizabeth made solemn vows to Konrad similar to those of a nun. These vows included celibacy, as well as complete obedience to Konrad as her confessor and spiritual director. Konrad's treatment of Elizabeth was extremely harsh, and he held her to standards of behavior which were almost impossible to meet. Among the punishments he is alleged to have ordered were physical beatings; he also ordered her to send away her three children. Her pledge to celibacy proved a hindrance to her family's political ambitions. Elizabeth was more or less held hostage at Pottenstein, the castle of her uncle, Bishop Ekbert of Bamberg, in an effort to force her to remarry. Elizabeth, however, held fast to her vow, even threatening to cut off her own nose so that no man would find her attractive enough to marry…Elizabeth built a hospital at Marburg for the poor and the sick with the money from her dowry, where she and her companions cared for them.”
The missing vita
It seems obvious that the story of Saint Dymphna was merged with that of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. Only this doesn’t line up, since Dymphna’s story was first written in 1247 and Maria of Brabant died in 1256. However, the date is an estimate. Her vita was written by Peter van Kamerijk in a work commissioned by Guiard of Laon, the Bishop of Cambrai, who died in 1248. It turns out the publication date given comes from the date of his death, not the date of the document.
This is when I became curious about how so many people writing about Dymphna reference the original vita as if they’re copying her story from it directly – even when they vary dramatically – and I haven’t come across it yet. By this point I’d spent so much time reading about Dymphna that my friends were ready to stage an intervention.
It would be helpful if any of the journalists and scholars giving the vita as their source mentioned where it was located or provided an actual citation. In a listing for the Vitae Dymphnae et S. Gereberni presbiteri, the origin is given as 1238-1277. Suddenly, the dates line up again. It is the report of their miracles that supposedly dates to 1240-1247.
Other sources note that we don’t know when the vita was written or who commissioned it. The Bishop may have been Guiard of Lao or it might have been Guido de Collemedio, which shifts the dates to 1296-1302. People working with the Geel tourist office consistently present the earliest possible date, while scholars push the date back.
The listing says the original vita is located in the Gasthuismuseum. The Gasthuismuseum catalog does not show the vita in their catalog. Music scholars note that the gasthuismuseum has two manuscripts with a vita of Dymphna. The documents they found date from the 1530s, when the pope approved a college of ten vicars founded by the lords of the Merode family. The authors suggest more documents may yet be found in Tongerlo Abbey’s archives, which haven’t been catalogued.
A 1905 catalog in the Royal Archive in Brussels lists the Hystoria sancte Dymne virginis et martyris. Inc. Fuit in Hibernia rex quidam gentilis. It’s not clear that this is the original vita. No one referencing the original vita mentions going to the archives in Brussels. It’s too bad, since if they had I could have gone to check when I was there before and after my time in Geel. I can’t find any recent references to the location of the original vita.
I’m not the first one to have this trouble. In 1887 Ferdinand Heuckenkamp wrote:
“The original manuscript of the author of the legend of St. Dimphna has not survived to us, at least I haven't been able to find anything of it anywhere, but there are a few handwritten copies”
From cure to incurable
Some authors note how the connection between the Dymphna story and curing the mad seems specious, yet none of them attempt to find an explanation.5
One version of the story says five lunatics who witnessed her beheading were cured. It’s not explained why a tiny village had so many lunatics, how they happened to be in the right place at the right time, and how witnessing a double murder would be good for one’s mental health. This detail wasn’t retained as the story evolved.
The version of the Dymphna story printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association tells us:
“The king’s act was considered insane, and done by a person possessed…Dymphna’s martyrdom was viewed as a triumph of wisdom and chastity over the insane devils of lust and impurity. Because she had been able to resist these devils and remain unsullied, it was believed that God had granted her the privilege of becoming the special saint of the victims of mental maladies.”
It’s very Freudian to assume it takes moral strength to resist the lusty temptation to marry one’s father.
The explanation I kept getting for why Dymphna became the patron saint for the mentally ill and why that led to a colony of the incurable when I asked in person – a shrug, accompanied by something like “who knows the ways of peasants” – is in line with things I found in academic journals and history books.
Only one historian bothered to give a plausible answer to the question of why a site known for curing the mad would become a dumping ground for them. In his 1841 book, Pliny Earle explains6 that since people have lost faith in Saint Dymphna, the cure no longer works. Thus, the village has been turned into an asylum for incurables.
I’ve since learned that Catholics exhume bodies all the time. Trading in relics is a big thing, so when potential saints die they chop the bodies up into tiny pieces and then continue to shave off even smaller pieces to give as gifts. It’s also okay to steal relics, since they can only be removed with the permission of the saint in question.
Reading about Catholic saints has been an odd and fascinating experience. I find myself charmed by how specific some of the patronages can be. For example, Saint Benedict of Nursia is the patron saint of servants who have broken their master's belongings.
The bible doesn’t actually name the disciple who Jesus asked to take care of his mom, so we’re just guessing since the rest of them were martyred.
Things were less formal until recently, although even the informal processes for canonization had various levels of legitimacy. At the least strict level, any acknowledgement by church authorities can be conisdered canonization, hence things like: The Guardian (“The influx of pilgrims seeking alleviation from their psychological and psychiatric torments culminated in stories of miraculous cures, which in turn led to Dymphna’s canonisation in 1247, when she became the patron saint of lunatics.”) and JAMA (“On certification of some of the miracles performed, the church canonized Dymphna in 1247 AD.”)
An example: “Since people associated insanity with possession, this would quickly make Dimpna the appropriate saint for the healer. Is this a sufficient explanation? In any case, a whole ritual was elaborated.”
Earle hadn’t visited Geel himself and basically copied Halliday’s account, so it seems possible that he made up this explanation.