Dymphna vs. Gertrude of Nivelles

Madness and cats. These are among the factors you will be deciding upon as you cast today's vote between Dymphna, the patron saint of madness, and Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats. But of course the lives of saintly souls are more than the various aspects of life we've appended to them over the years. Which is why people read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Lent Madness write-ups before deciding which saint resonates with them on a particular day. That's the joy embedded in the process.

Yesterday, Katharina von Bora defeated Wulfstan 55% to 45% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen. All is not lost for Wulfstan, however. Apparently many Lent Madness voters will be naming their next cats after him.


DymphnaDymphna lived in the seventh century and was the daughter of a pagan Irish king and his Christian wife. Her story was passed down for centuries via oral tradition and first written down in the thirteenth century.

At fourteen years old, Dymphna dedicated herself to Christ and took a vow of chastity. Her father, grieving the death of his beautiful wife, began to desire to take Dymphna as his wife. Dymphna fled to Belgium and took refuge in the town of Geel, where she carried out good deeds and acts of mercy until her father tracked her down. He traveled to Geel and tried to force Dymphna to return with him to Ireland, but she resisted. Furious, her father drew his sword and beheaded his fifteen-year-old daughter.

Dymphna’s inspiring legacy has formed the town of Geel into a place of miraculous compassion. In the middle ages, pilgrims traveled from all over Europe to visit the church named in her memory and to seek treatment for the mentally ill. When the church ran out of room to house pilgrims, townspeople opened their own homes. This tradition of care has endured in Geel for more than seven hundred years. Pilgrims and patients are still invited into residents’ homes as boarders and welcomed as valued members of the community. At its peak in the 1930s, Geel’s citizens hosted more than 4,000 boarders.

Saint Dymphna’s feast day is celebrated May 15. She is traditionally shown as a regal princess holding a sword. In modern versions, the sword symbolizes her martyrdom, but in the older statues and stained glass images, she is pricking the neck of a demon with her sword, symbollically slaying the demons of mental disorders.

Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill and those suffering with neurological disorders as well as those who treat such disorders. She is also the patron saint of victims of incest.

Collect for Dymphna
Loving God, who chose Dymphna as patroness of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders, grant comfort and healing to all who suffer from mental illness and courage and compassion to all those who minister to the mentally ill. May your church take inspiration from her good example, so that like Dymphna and the people of Geel we may open our hearts and lives to those in need, in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-Amber Belldene

Gertrude of Nivelles

GertrudeGertrude was born around 626 to two faithful Christians who were also powerful political figures in western Europe. She lived with her family at the royal court. As the daughter of a nobleman, Gertrude was a highly prized potential wife.

Gertrude, however, had other ideas about her life. At a royal feast, the king asked young Gertrude if she would like to marry the son of a duke to secure her family’s good fortune and power. Gertrude is reported to have angrily replied that she would not marry the son of a duke—or any man—but would only be wed to Christ the Lord.

When her father died a decade later, her mother Ida (or Itta) founded and built a double monastery (where men and women served together) in Nivelles in modern-day Belgium. Wealthy widows of the time often established monasteries to protect their children, especially unwed daughters, and their familial lands from seizure should the political powers change. Ida also tonsured her daughter; this act of shaving the head marked Gertrude for religious life and helped stop the constant flow of persistent suitors vying for her hand in marriage—and control of her great fortune and power.

Upon her mother’s death, Gertrude became abbess of the monastery at Nivelles. Under her leadership, the monastery became known as a safe harbor for all travelers. She welcomed pilgrims, monastics, and missionaries as well as their teachings and traditions, inviting guests to teach those in the monastery new chants and to tell stories of Christianity from other lands.

Gertrude remained singularly dedicated to Christ throughout her life. She spent hours devoted to prayer, especially for those who had died. She wore a hairshirt, a shirt made of rough fabric with a layer of animal hair and used for self-mortification. She was buried in her hairshirt and a discarded veil when she died at age 33.

She is often pictured with mice, and gold and silver mice were left as offerings at her shrine in Germany as late as the nineteenth century. Mice often represented souls in purgatory, and Gertrude prayed fervently for those who had died. Legend holds that the souls of those who have died in the Lord spend their first night in heaven with Gertrude as their hostess.

Collect for Gertrude of Nivelles
Gracious God, lover of souls, we give you thanks for Gertrude who singularly dedicated her life to welcoming the traveler and praying for those who have died: Grant that we too may seek to entertain angels unaware and to pray for those who have entered eternal rest, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

-Laurie Brock

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Dymphna: By Judgefloro (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Gertrude: Icon painted by Marice Sariola. http://www.iconsbymarice.com.au Published with permission.


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306 comments on “Dymphna vs. Gertrude of Nivelles”

    1. I think cats are great but that is not why I voted for Gertrude. They both dedicated themselves to God early and gave up human pleasures. But Gertrude welcomed Christians of all beliefs and asked them to share their beliefs which is something not common at all in most of the houses of worship I have read about. This is an example of knowing God speaks many tongues and our minds should always be open to hear so we may understand the differences and through the fog see the basic messages of faith.
      Anyway that is why I voted for her this day.

      1. Pat, I have to admit I voted for Gertrude solely on the cats, but I love what you wrote about your vote.

      2. I completely agree with you Pat. Thank you for being so articulate. I’d like to add that there is as little connection made between Dymphna and mental illness, as there is between Gertrude and cats, but at least the iconography dates further back!

        1. Dymphna is also patron of incest victims. I spent much of my career listening to their stories and God knows Dymphna certainly knew more than the average peron about incest in families. And we would say her father certainly experienced a form of mental illness as an incestuous pedaphile.

          Gertrude is saintly but I must have misread it if the foreign tales told were about other faiths. It sounded like those tales were about how Christianity is practiced in other lands.

          Go Dymphna! We need a patron for the suffering victims of incest and mental illness.

          1. I think Dymphna is definitely the one, especially this past year with the #Metoo movement and the disclosures of so many women who have suffered from abuse.

          2. My sister, Kirsten, passed away (cancer) nearly eight years ago. Kirsten had been sexually, emotionally, and mentally abused from a very young age. She was also mentally challenged, becoming bi-polar. I’m a year younger than her, and I looked up to her, she was my best friend. By the time I was seven years old, I realized I had a more mature understanding of what had been happening and I tried to protect her, to skirt her away from her abusers. Unfortunately, they were my abusers, too, and Kirsten and I lost hold of each other. The day of her funeral services, was also the first day that I was hospitalized, near death, undergoing intense chemotherapy. Kirsten was dancing at the foot of my bed, smiling, and assuring me that we really hadn’t lost hold of each other, that it wasn’t my time to come home.
            Kirsten loved cats, so I wanted to cast my vote for both Gertrude and Dymphna. Dymphna, Gertrude, and Kirsten. My vote was for Dymphna, as my sister's proxy.

        1. i was wondering the same thing. I thought Julian of Norwich was the patron saint of Cats.... since she fed them.... talked to them. .... So, I agree with Patricia Nakamura in wondering how we jumped from cats to mice....

          1. Cats are very good at finding lost mice.
            My sister, Kirsten, passed away (cancer) nearly eight years ago. Kirsten had been sexually, emotionally, and mentally abused from a very young age. She was also mentally challenged, becoming bi-polar. I'm a year younger than her, and I looked up to her, she was my best friend. By the time I was seven years old, I realized I had a more mature understanding of what had been happening and I tried to protect her, to skirt her away from her abusers. Unfortunately, they were my abusers, too, and Kirsten and I lost hold of each other. The day of her funeral services, was also the first day that I was hospitalized, near death, undergoing intense chemotherapy. Kirsten was dancing at the foot of my bed, smiling, and assuring me that we really hadn't lost hold of each other, that it wasn't my time to come home.
            Kirsten loved cats, so I wanted to cast my vote for both Gertrude and Dymphna. Dymphna, Gertrude, and Kirsten.

      3. Yes, this is also why I voted for Gertrude.
        Fascinating matchup: two strong young women for whom devotion to Jesus involved avoiding getting married, geographically attached to seventh century Belguim. Nicely done, SEC!

      1. Thank you bi thought I was the only one who never saw the word cats in her story. So what exactly do cats have to do with her story?

      2. There are several internet sites which talk of Gertrude' s connection with cats, but usually only to say that she and the nuns kept cats to wage war with rodents. If you wish to read an interesting article go to Catster.com, which includes a prayer to her.
        Of course I had to vote for a saint with an affinity for the four-legged and/or winged creatures.

  1. I voted for Dymphna because she started the tradition of letting people into their homes.

    1. Oscar, this is why I voted for her also. I think this what Jesus would do, and since I am a travel agent the sense of open hospitality to strangers touches me.

    2. I voted for Dymphna because she is the patron saint of those who suffer from mental disorders. As a priest who once served as a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital, this is my vote.

    3. I agree, Oliver. I like Gertrude's hospitality and her interest in the beliefs of others.

  2. Agree with Ann-- love cats so Gertrude is my choice. But, you didn't explain why / how she is the patron saint of cats???? Seems more like she should be patron saint of mice, although no explanation for that either. Come on, guys --- give it up!

      1. Good point, Oliver. Your insights are keen.

        I voted for Gertrude because she herself let many people of diverse opinions into her monastery, which could be considered a house of God.

          1. I think cat hair is probably too short to spin into thread. Even longhairs don't have fibers that long. Dog hair can be spun but cat hair would have to be felted (like dryer lint) and wouldn't be very durable.

            That said, my look is usually "White Cat Black Jacket" -- all of my clothes are liberally decorated with cat hair!

    1. It comes from her position as protector against rats and mice and all the harm they bring. It may also be linked to her veneration as one of two patron saints of sailors (Nicholas is the other), sailors being long-time fans of cats against bugs and mice on ships.

    2. Mental Floss has this to say. "Because of her reputation for hospitality, Gertrude was originally the patron saint of travelers and the recently dead (who were seen as making their own form of journey) as well as gardeners and the mentally ill. But as the centuries wore on, she also became associated with rodents. The link may have involved early Christian beliefs: Gertrude was known to pray for the souls of those in purgatory, and medieval artists often portrayed those souls as mice. Gertrude’s iconography—the items in a painting or statue that told illiterate people who the saint was—always included mice or rats at her feet, climbing up her robes, or climbing the crozier that symbolized her role as an abbess.

      The connection between Gertrude and rodents became solidified as veneration of her spread throughout northern Europe, and little silver or gold statues of mice were left at a shrine to her in Cologne as late as 1822. By then, she had become the saint one asked to intercede in the case of a rodent infestation; it was said that the water from her abbey’s well would chase away rats and mice. In the past few decades, faithful Catholics (and cat lovers) have made the leap from associating Gertrude with warding off mice to associating her with cats. The idea seems to have started in the 1980s, more than 1300 years after she lived. Some sources say the first publication to link Gertrude and cats was a 1981 catalog, Metropolitan Cats, put out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Since then, the idea that Gertrude is the patron of cats—and cat owners—has spread. As saint expert Thomas J. Craughwell explains it, “St. Gertrude … is invoked against mice and rats, which has led cat lovers to assume that Gertrude was a cat person, and so the ideal patron of their favorite pet.” There are now many icons and paintings of her with a cat."

      The Catholic Church has never officially recognized St. Gertrude as the patron saint of cats. It's interesting to see how this progressed.

      1. So is the icon above from after the 1980’s? I agree that it’s interesting how this story has grown, and I bet those mice of hers wouldn’t like it at all!

      2. Thank you for sharing the excellent clarification! Interesting that Gertrude's status re cats is pretty much bogus.

    3. I was hoping to find some medieval images in our Index of Medieval Art that would track the cat iconography further back, and while I ran into many late medieval manuscripts showing Gertrude with one or more mice, I didn't see even one cat. At least artistically, it seems to be a thoroughly modern thing. But Gertrude gets my vote anyway; any friend of cats is a friend of mine.

      1. Not really because we are getting to know other saintly folks from throughout the ages who are also good examples of faith and commitment!

    1. And I think that the brackets tend to score a the vote towards women...guess I am a sore loser, I mean, who would vote against Paul?.

    2. Please check out the NPR article about the town in Belgium. I don't know how or I would paste the URL. Also, there is the concept in both stories of radical hospitality.

      1. I'd heard of Geel's profoundly kind attitude towards the mentally ill before I found Lent Madness - what a wonderful legacy for Dymphna to get credit for!

    3. I finally voted for Dymphna, although, like William Osborne, I didn't find either especially compelling. This year's bracket is rather strange, a mixture of heavy hitters and people whose stories appear to be pious fables, along with the more usual suspects. Yes, Emily, we can submit suggestions for next year, in November as I recall. For several years I have suggested Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who is in the Episcopal list of Holy Women, Holy Men, and Fred Rogers, who is generally considered a saint by all who knew him or knew of him. Maybe some year one of them will make it.

    4. My mother, a very faithful woman, suffered terribly with mental illness. Dymphna's father was clearly suffering with something as well. Anyone with compassion for the mentally ill has my vote, she doesn't feel like a stretch for a saint at all.

      1. I totally agree, Jennifer. I didn't hesitate for a second in voting for Dymphna for that reason; she seems entirely worthy and important to me.

  3. Both women have compelling stories and I like Oliver's comment but I voted for Gertrude because "Legend holds that the souls of those who have died in the Lord spend their first night in heaven with Gertrude as their hostess." Also, patron saint of cats and my Chloe and Roxanne would be upset with me if I didn't vote for their patron saint. 🙂

    1. My lifelong relationship with numerous felines suggests otherwise; as a practical matter, cats helped protect grain stores and help prevent spread of bubonic plague. The European pandemic was caused in part by people deciding cats were the devil's disciples and killing their best protector.

  4. As one who suffers from depression it's tempting to go for Dymphna but Gertrude seems to have benefited the most people. Cats helpedso I guess it's Gertrude!

        1. Both cats and dogs will end up in Heaven - but as Billy Collins notes at the end of his excellent poem "The Revanant":

          Now I am free of the collar,
          the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
          the absurdity of your lawn,
          and that is all you need to know about this place

          except what you already supposed
          and are glad it did not happen sooner--
          that everyone here can read and write,
          the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

  5. it came down to the cats. I won’t be disappointed if Dymphna bests Gertrude, but being someone who lives with four cats . . .

  6. This was a tough one. Both strong women for their time, showing radical hospitality: one by caring for others in need, one by opening her heart to how Christianity is practiced around the globe. We need both their examples today. I ended up voting for Gertrude in honor of all those I was blessed by on a trip to south India. I miss the rich liturgical language!

  7. Hmm... patron saint of madness vs patron saint of cats -- for whom is a crazy cat lady supposed to vote?!

    1. My relationship with my beautiful tabby friend Oliver Twist and I can best be described as mutual ownage. As a cat person, I briefly considered voting for Gertrude. However, if there is anyone who needs a patron saint, it is the person who is mentally ill! And the person who has been sexually abused by a relative! I have struggled with depression much of my life. In addition, I have friends and relatives who suffer from various forms of mental illness. So Dymphna it is!

  8. I don't understand how a woman who did just about everything she could to protect herself should be the patron saint of mental illness etc.

    I do like that she resisted unto death.
    I do like that because of her life incest is discussed.
    And I love what the town has done, how they have lived her legacy.

    I do not like that Gertrude's family's involvement with the church was akin to a tax shelter. Nice for the church.

    Guess who I voted for.

    1. I agree that there's got to be a saint better suited as patron saint for the mentally ill than Damphne.
      But, regarding Gertrude, she wore a hair shirt, for goodness sake! She could have led a life of luxury. Anyhow, let's not get into taxes.

      1. I would find it hard to vote for anyone who wore a hair shirt, as I consider that sort of asceticism or masochism, or whatever it is, an unfortunate strain in Christianity.

  9. The crozier Gertrude is holding also indicated the extraordinary rank she held in the church at that time. She headed the monasteries of men and women, was able to provide the sacramental needs of her monks and nuns - and her monasteries brewed beer and sold it to support themselves so she is also honored by beer drinkers. Maybe that's what we get to drink our first night in heaven! I have a brass rubbing from her tomb in Nivelle. In it, she has her eyes focused on Christ in the arms of Mary while demons gnaw at her robes. She is ignoring them completely.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Becky. What a great story and great tradition. I am the mom of a young adult who has high functioning autism who has had his share of struggles over the years. It's Dymphna for me!

  10. Can't decide between the two, as they both seem equally good and useful and put upon by male dominated society. Therefore, I picked Gertrude since I am not a cat person and therefore are not picking her for her affinity with a type of animal. Indeed, I am a bird person.

  11. We need this saint more now than ever.
    "Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill and those suffering with neurological disorders as well as those who treat such disorders."

  12. Gertrude: with darling orange tabby. We cat lovers always wear hair shirts as a sign of our devotion. Proof of the existence of God is most easily seen on the elegant design of a cat.

  13. I've been waiting to vote for Dymphna seemingly all my life. I was in a musical in high school with a lyric about her. But also, as cute and fun as the patron saint of cats may be, Dymphna is a model of the care we should be giving the mentally ill but too often are not.

  14. Dymphna because mental illness plagues so many. I worked my way through college and grad school working with the mentally ill and in mental hospitals. Their suffering is so hard. Anyone who cares for them or loves someone with mental illness can use all the support they can get. So, it was Dymphna form me today.

  15. So many of societies ills are exacerbated by the lack of adequate and compassionate mental health care. Dymphna pray for us!!!

  16. As someone who is a member of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), I definitely support Dymphna. As a pastoral intern on a psychiatric unit I shared her story. The patients there were very surprised to learn there was a patron saint for those suffering with mental health concerns!

  17. I've known decades of depression and various neurological conditions in my own life, and I've known many people with similar afflictions who have sought Dymphna's intercession. This was, for once, an easy choice.

  18. Gertrude was actually a pretty impressive person; standing up against political and masculine powers pretty much her whole life, defending a lot of non-empowered people, and setting her niece up as her successor, thus also saving her niece from being a mere pawn in the machinations of others. Just sayin'.