Community Recovery

Here’s one from an amazing fellow survivor who recently connected with Spirit Fire. It was impossible not to respond with an open mind to his description of the impact on his life of St. Dymphna, the patron of mental illness and anxiety.

As anyone will tell you, I’m wary of stories of women whose sainthood is based on their choosing death over rape. But, yet again, thanks to another survivor’s inspiration, I took a fresh look at this saint and learned far more than I could have imagined.

What I found was a saint whose flight from danger and brief act of charity would create the longest-lived “community recovery” in Western Europe.

Medical science and enlightened social work — in residential programs for mentally ill people and/or victims of human trafficking, for example — can only talk about the idea of what the community, which was affected by St. Dymphna, produced and maintained … for centuries.

As I prepare for the (free) Spirit Fire Global Broadcast Series interview segments on recovery collectives or communities (e.g., among indigenous peoples), I’ve learned how rare this community spirit is. Then, here was St. Dymphna, far ahead of the curve, with a community of integrated support that developed organically—within the Catholic Church.

The Story Basics

Around 1248 AD, Dymphna fled from Ireland with a protective priest and few others to escape the perverted overtures of her would-be abuser (story here). The little troup arrived in Geel (in what is now Belgium) where the young princess Dymphna used her sizable funds to build a hospice for the poor and infirm. Sadly, the abuser tracked the little group to Geel, where he murdered them. Dymphna was only about 15 years old. What remained, however, was a community moved by her charity–and by her story. Geel would pick up the torch and care for the least acceptable sick and infirm until the present day.

The murder of the beloved princess and her priest-protector was seen by the locals as a martyrdom. Pilgrims began to come from all over Europe seeking treatment for what were then the most untreatable conditions, which were largely what we might call now psychiatric disorders. They sought medical and spiritual care, and with that found also material and relational care.

That is how Geel became a sanctuary for people from all over Europe who were ostracized by others, who had been despaired of by doctors, for being “mad.” (Keep in mind what normally happened to the “mad” during these and subsequent centuries, in horrifying madhouses.) What became of Geel is truly miraculous for its exceptional difference.

As numbers of the “mad” patients in need grew, no one was turned away. Accommodations had to be found. The Church and the infirmaries turned to local residents, who began taking patients into their own homes. The care for patients involved access to psychological and medical care, but also to becoming a welcomed part of a foster family which was experienced in care. It included things like meaningful, if menial, work that did not exceed capabilities. Patients stayed as long as they wished–a short while, or a life time. This is more than a multi-disciplinary approach to mental health. It is what is called the community model, and its success is quite rare in Western medicine.

Visitors in small-sized Geel peaked at four thousand in the 1930s, after which the war and reconstruction suppressed activities mostly but not entirely. Geel resurged and continued to provide care for the mentally unwell. In 1966, Dr. Leo Srole, a sociologist from Columbia University, created an international, multi-disciplinary team to examine the Geel community model. It took ten years and involved almost 100 people recruited from academia, medical and psychological backgrounds, and from Geel residents. Among themes studied were:

  • Geel’s history
  • Patients’ experiences
  • Foster family structures and experiences
  • Geel’s role as a community
  • Ambivalent views of Geel among non-residents and health professionals.

If you’d like to read more about the Geel community model and the saints who founded it in the middle of the 13th century, take a look at the sources for this article.

If you need a saint to offer reflections on how our plight and flight from abuse can be used by God’s grace to work wonders, take a look at St. Dymphna–and offer a prayer for yourself (and me!).


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