Geel, Belgium - The City of Saint Dymphna
There are many places significant in disability history. Geel, Belgium is a place to which the story of Saint Dymphna attracted many to come and seek mental health help. It is known for being a safe place for those who have mental disabilities.
This place was the tragic place where Saint Dymphna lost her. According to the booklet prepared for the Gasthuismuseum Geel, her life begins in tragedy, with Dymphna’s mother passing during childbirth. This caused great grief to her father. Dymphna was described as a sweet child, the “face of beauty” and a bright and eager child. The death of her mother has always caused her great sadness though she sought comfort from her Christian faith. As she was growing up, her father, the king, was looking for someone to. This was done with no avail, and soon he began to fall into a state of “madness.” Hoping to help the king, his men offered him the idea that his wife's late beauty was only comparable to that of his daughter. The king told Dymphna that he wanted to marry her. This horrified Dymphna who tried to refuse her father's advance. Dymphna, being a devoted Christian, wanted to devote her life and her virginity to God. Scared of what would happen the young girl turned to a local priest whom she truste d greatly, Father Gerebran. Dymphna explained to him about her father’s proposal, and the only advice Father Gerebran could give was to flee. Accompanied by Gereban, Dymphna fled to a little village called Geel.
In Geel, Dymphna started to settle and make plans for their future. Meanwhile, the king found out about her escape and became very angry. He looked for towns that accepted any fugitives and found that they were located in Geel. The angry king went to Belgium and tried to order Dymphna to accept his proposal. Father Gereban intervened in the situation and called out the wicked king for his intentions to marry his daughter. With this accusation, the king commanded his followers to cut off the head of Father Gereban. After that incident, the king still tried to persuade Dymphna to marry him, but with courage, she rejected his promise and snubbed his threats. Taking his own sword, the king cut off the head of his own daughter. While Dymphna was dying, she began to cry out for mercy from God and to save her soul from her “mad” father.
Records of the past show that the bodies of Dymphna and Father Gereban were left to rot until the people of Geel took their bodies to a cave. After many years, after remembering their holy deaths, the people decided to grant them a proper burial. Dymphna became Saint Dymphna because of her good works in Geel before she died. Many miracles and cures began to occur spontaneously, which enhanced the fame of Geel and caused many people to travel from afar. Those people included those with nervous and mental disorders. It slowly became an asylum for those with mental disorders. Due to the fact that people were cured of their mental disorders, more and more people arrived in that little village. The church became so full to the point that the inhabitants of Geel had to set up another place for them to stay. So they started to send them to stay with families in the town of Geel (Thériault).
The reason why Geel was such a special place to be for those with mental disorders was that those with such impairments were socially accepted instead of being social. Society has placed stigma on mental disabilities without being fully educated. Not all mental disorders are the same, just like all disabilities are not the same. The residents in Geel, Belgium were the prime epitome for how “true Christians” are supposed to treat the disability community. They welcomed – and still welcome - pilgrims and visitors from far-away places into their homes and hearts. In modern times, people still travel to Geel, Belgium for assistance with their mental health. Geel has become an asylum or the “headquarters” of mental disabilities/disorders.
Due to the fact that society has often made those with mental disorders and mental disabilities pariah in their community, they sometimes have to flee to Geel because that is where they will be socially accepted. They were (and are) able to go to a place where they will be treated as a proper human being or even as family. Geel’s procedures have proven to be some of the most successful ways to treat mental health.
“The Meaning of Madness.” Psychology Today, 11 Sept. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201209/the-meaning-madness.
Thériault, Anne. “The City with a Radical Approach to Mental Illness.” Broadview Magazine, 17 Sept. 2019, https://broadview.org/geel-belgium-mental-health/.