Born during the 7th century to Irish royalty, St. Dymphna’s mother, the queen, had the girl baptized and raised in the faith in secret because of her husband’s pagan beliefs. When Dymphna was only fourteen, her beloved mother died and the king went mad in his great state of grief. He decided that he wanted to marry Dymphna, his own daughter, because she looked so much like her mother. Dymphna, who had made a vow of virginity before God, was horrified by her father’s proposal and adamantly refused.
To escape the king’s inevitable outrage over her rejection, Dymphna fled the kingdom. She was accompanied by her confessor, Fr. Gerebran as well as several faithful servants from her father’s court. The group settled in Belgium in a city called Gheel near a shrine of St. Martin of Tours. While there, Dymphna used her wealth to care for the sick and poor of the region.
Unfortunately, her father discovered her whereabouts and he sailed to Gheel in the hopes of bringing her back with him. Upon his arrival, the king continued his attempts to convince Dymphna to marry him, promising great wealth and esteem if she accepted his offer. Still, she would not change her mind, staying true to her vow of virginity and refusal to enter an incestuous relationship. In his anger, the king ordered his men to kill Fr. Gerebern while he himself beheaded Dymphna. She was only fifteen years old at the time.
Both Dymphna and the priest, Fr. Gerebran, were later named saints and Dymphna was honored with the crown of martyrdom. She was declared patroness of those with mental problems because of the great anguish her father’s mental affliction caused.
A church was built in Gheel in her name and many people suffering from mental disorders began traveling there for healings. Soon, the church was so full that an addition was added onto it but even then it still could not contain all the visitors. As a result, the townspeople of Gheel began accepting the mentally ill travelers into their homes. This tradition continues to this day.