For centuries, the town of Gheel, Belgium, has been a place of pilgrimage for those afflicted with mental disorders. They are drawn by the tall, beautiful church that stands in the midst of the town—a church dedicated to the patroness of mental disorders. The people of Gheel have traditionally welcomed these pilgrims not only as visitors to their town but as guests and residents in their own homes.
Why is this place such a haven for these sufferers? Who is the saint honored in the church of Gheel?
This church is dedicated to St. Dymphna, the virgin-martyr whose relics are said to be kept there. The church was built at the traditional site of her martyrdom.
According to the traditions associated with St. Dymphna, she was born in Ireland in the 7th century, the daughter of a pagan king and a beautiful, devout Christian mother. She was raised in the Faith and was most devout and virtuous from an early age.
The death of Dymphna’s mother caused her father to fall into the throes of deepest grief. He was driven so mad by sorrow that he resolved to marry his own daughter, who was as beautiful as her mother. Dymphna, horrified at this idea, fled to Belgium with some companions, including a holy priest named Gerebernus, and was welcomed into the town of Gheel.
Her father eventually discovered her whereabouts and, arriving in Gheel with his men, attempted to persuade her to return with him. But she stood firm and, while the priest Gerebernus was killed by the king’s men, the king killed his daughter himself.
The people of the town buried these two martyrs, and eventually built the church that stands there today. St. Dymphna’s relics remained there while those of St. Gerebernus were transferred to Germany.
Miracles began to happen in Gheel on behalf of the mentally ill. St. Dymphna’s reputation grew so much that in the Middle Ages, housing was built for patients seeking healing, and eventually the townspeople started welcoming them into their own homes. Rather than being locked away permanently in an asylum, these people were treated as friends and family members and given work and a place in society. This tradition continues in Gheel today.
At The Catholic Company, we designed a beautiful chaplet of red, white, and green to honor St. Dymphna and her patronage of those suffering from anxiety, stress, or any mental affliction. The red jade honors her martyrdom, the white jade her purity, and the fresh green aventurine symbolizes hope of healing and renewal through her intercession. An inspiring and encouraging gift for a friend or relative experiencing mental difficulties. Available today at The Catholic Company!