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. It was very hard not to vote for Gertrude as my little 19 and a half year old cat died last Friday, and I love too that Gertrude is said to care for souls who are spending their first night in heaven, but I was so moved that Dymphna's tradition of taking in the stranger and the pilgrim has endured for so long. Also it is certain that those amongst us who suffer from mental dis-ease need a strong ally in times like these. Dymphna for me.

  2. Well, this faked me out. As a cat-lover I was all for Gertrude until I learned that her cats were directed to catch mice representing poor souls in Purgatory. And my career in health science included a long stretch in the National Institute of Neurological Disoeders and Stroke.

  3. So gertrude is the saint of cats because of the mice? I'm a bit confused but voted for her anyway.

    1. I couldn't have said it better! Though I love cats, St. Dymphna has been my favorite saint for many years. I prefer to think of her as the patron saint of PTSD, since her "mental illness" was actually forced on her by traumatic mistreatment.

  4. The cats have it, though I liked the fact that townspeople invite pilgrims into their houses.
    Unfortunately, I also agree with the comments about the choice of candidates this year and also the way they have been paired.

  5. Never heard of either of these ladies but incest victim Dympha's story needs to be told in our # metoo moment and her compassion for the mentally ill embraced.

  6. These two obscure and legendary 7th-century figures are perplexing indeed. It would be very helpful to know why Gertrude is the patron saint of cats, and why Dymphna is the patron saint of people with mental illnesses. I'm personal staff to four cats, and have been priest and friend to many dear people whose family lives have been traumatized by severe mental illness ... but exactly what does this have to do with Gertrude and Dymphna?

  7. I will vote for Dymphna, because, like a victim of abuse who is close to me, she turned her horrible experience into support for the less fortunate. Her inspiration of the town of Geel is - well, inspiring!

  8. Greetings. This is my second year traveling through Lent wit Lent Madness. Thanks to everyone!

    What a tough decision today! Thank you for our brothers and sisters stories which remind me that our struggles aren't all that different from theirs, and that they over oamenthe world and so shall we.


  9. I voted for Gertrude, then realised that one of my mousers is called Gertie! I think I have been on the losing side in all but two rounds....

  10. Gertrude lived a full life, dedicated to God. A good reason to vote for her. Reason #2: she is pictured holding an orange tabby cat, just like my beloved kitten Boris. Reason #3: I had a grand aunt named Gertrude.

  11. In our day, we need Dymphna supporting those with mental illness more than we need the patron saint of cats! (I love my cats. I do. But IMHO, they do not need a patron saint.)

  12. I am familiar with Dymphna as my sister suffered from an intellectual disability since birth and my Irish mother had St. Dymphna prayer cards all around...Dymphna was like a member of the family. She gets my vote (and my cat will just have to deal with it).

    1. (And my cat will just have to deal with it) As I’m sure, your cat says...as s/he leaves you that ever so loverly HAIrBall for you to find at the most inopportune (sp?) moment!

      I’m pretty sure my cat relishes giving me something else to do at his command!

  13. I was going to go with Gertrude (and her crozier) (AND her cat!) but read the NPR article cited above and have to go with Dymphna. Note that in that article her father is described as insane, which may be the connection to mental illness that seemed to be missing in her short bio above. Yes, I too and a crazy cat lady, so the choice was hard.

  14. The real miracle of Gertrude is how much was accomplished in her short life. She must have been perhaps 13 when the king asked her if she would marry the son of a duke. That would make her 23 when her father died. Her mother then had to build a whole double monastery , and then die, making Gertrude's time as abbess before she too died less than 10 years, a very short time to make a large enough difference to be remembered almost 1400 years later. This would seem impossible without the addition of martyrdom. Is there more to the story?

  15. These gals have very similar stories, which made it hard to choose. I was going to vote for Gertrude as I already knew her story, but after reading Dymphna's story I thought of the "Me Too" movement and decided to vote for her. Her father's behavior made me angry.

    1. good point + "her" collect is beautiful . . . however, I think I'll vote for Gertrude, who lived a little longer & had a little more opportunity to struggle with life

  16. Dymphna gets my vote as I see and read about too many homeless people on the streets with a sizable number suffering from varied types of mental illness. Unfortunally, there are few agencies, or not enough, to care for them and the city never has enough funding. The ACLU may not have been the best answer to ending institutionalization of the mentally ill. The cats can fend for themselves today !

  17. I could have gone either way for different reasons, but I did find it curious that cats were left out of the Gertrude write-up...even though the image has a cat in her arms. Had to do my own research on that one and found it has a tie-in with the mice. Apparently, she kept a lot of cats around to deal with the real mice problem at her monastery. I guess she was fine with their symbolic representation as the souls in purgatory, but wasn't too keen on having them run amok and spread disease. Can't blame her for that!

  18. Not sure the connection of Dymphna to mental illness or Gertrude to cats, but when in doubt, go with the martyr. Dymphna it is.

  19. A hard day for the Belgians to decide. We so need a patron saint of mental illness and incest that it was not a difficult choice for me.

  20. Reading both Saints I had to go with Dymphna
    For standing up to her Father in times of his
    Own sickness for Love unpure! Hard to believe
    That this took place back in the thirteenth Century when you think they would’ve been more protected of their children! Gertrude on the other hand I didn’t see anywhere that she was protecting cats, and how could she be a patron when stating she was always pictured w
    with silver mice!!! So I picked Dymphna who is a Saint in helping those in need!

    1. In addition to my comment I’m also a Cat Person but seeing my Cat is a rescue she can defend herself, as those with Mental illness n
      Need someone to help them and speak up for