National Catholic Register


A Heavenly Hospital of a Shrine

National Shrine of St. Dymphna, Massillon, Ohio

BY Mary Soltis

May 6-12, 2001 Issue | Posted 5/6/01 at 1:00 PM


The grounds of a psychiatric hospital may seem an unlikely site for a pilgrimage, but the National Shrine of St. Dymphna is right at home sharing space with Ohio's Massillon State Hospital.

Nor is the shrine's placement here an accident: The Irish-born princess who was murdered at the hands of her own father is patroness of the mentally ill.

A number of hospital residents work about the grounds as you walk along a peaceful, shaded path to the outdoor votive shrine. Inside the glass, trapezoid-shaped structure is a tall statue of St. Dymphna surrounded by vigil lights. Behind you is the premier church in the United States built in her honor and dedicated on her feast in 1938. The stately brick edifice, a few yards away from the state-run psychiatric hospital, is set in a peaceful and attractive area, surrounded by shrubs and trees that lend an aura of calm to the visitor.

Each year on St. Dymphna's feast — May 15 — you will find shrine director Father Matthew Herttna welcoming pilgrims into his office after a brief introduction in the church. Here there are no large processions, special Masses or great throngs of pilgrims. The Mass schedule remains the same as other days, and the doors are, as always, open to all.

A friendly secretary greets you behind a glass counter filled with St. Dymphna statues, books and chaplets. She leads each visitor down the hall past Father Herttna's office and into the church. The sociable and serene priest, whose onetime assignment has turned into a lifelong labor of love, always waits until a few people have gathered in the front pews. Then he comes into the sanctuary, welcomes everyone and tells the story of the saint.

Father Herttna reads letters from Dymphna devotees across the nation, which thank the Lily of Eire (Ireland) for her aid and attest to her powerful intercession. As a parting gesture, Father Herttna blesses each pilgrim with a relic of St. Dymphna, who died around the year 650, then invites all into his office for an informal chat.

Before you leave, the secretary sees that you sign the guest register and presents you with an envelope containing information about the shrine, along with some prayers and details on becoming a member of the St. Dymphna League (annual membership: $2).

Lively Light, Warm Woods

But there is no rush to see any pilgrim go, for time seems to stand still in the quiet of the shrine. You can easily spend an hour in the church. Small in size and modest in ornamentation, it features stained-glass windows that make up for the lack of grandeur. The windows are duo-tone — white and yellow, to be exact — and their effect is refreshing and cool on the warm wood of the sanctuary.

Above the choir loft, flanked by a pair of angels, St. Dymphna looks down on the congregation. Three cherubim in stained-glass bearing the words “Holy, Holy, Holy” overlook the altar, beside which rests a statue of the Infant of Prague. The statue was once moved, but hospital residents who attended daily Mass immediately protested, so the Infant was quickly returned to his proper place. Larger statues of the Holy Family (a Fontanini) and St. Dymphna are positioned on pedestals to either side of the sanctuary.

The other windows in the church are interesting for the pictures, fascinating for the antique English wording. Half of them tell stories directly related to Jesus’ healings: “Thy Faith made thee Whole,” “His hand was restored,” “I know that Thou art the Holy One of God,” and “Damsel, I say unto Thee rise.” The opposite half depict the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, listed in Latin, and scenes from the life of Christ, including the Resurrection, Crucifixion (which reads “He gave up the Ghost"), Holy Family with St. Joseph spreading a protective cloak around his family, and the Annunciation.

In the vestibule you can see a plaque dedicated to the first chaplain of the Massillon State Hospital, Rev. Austin W. Scully (b.1906), who assumed the post in June 1937. Here also you will find another fitting stained-glass window — St. John of God, the patron of hospitals, nurses, the sick and booksellers. He stands above two sick people; the bursting pomegranate with a cross at his side is a symbol of charity.

Dymphna's Dilemma

John was a Portuguese soldier who fought in France, Spain and Hungary, then became a shepherd in Seville and finally a religious-goods shop-owner in Granada. He entered a mental asylum after hearing St. John of Avila preach there in 1538, due to feelings of guilt for his wasted, dissolute past. With the aid of St. John, he left the asylum a year later and devoted the rest of his life to the ill poor, founding the Order of Brothers Hospitalers.

Unlike St. John of God, St. Dymphna suffered mental anguish at the hands of another whose own morality had gone askew. Though her father was a pagan king in Ireland, her mother was devout and faithful to God. When the mother died in Dymphna's youth, her grieving father searched to no avail for a similar wife. His advisors concluded that the only worthy person was his own daughter.

Dymphna's father approached her with the idea of marriage, but the 15-year-old recoiled in horror and asked for 40 days’ consideration. During that time, she fled to Belgium with her confessor, a Father Gerebran, and two others (in some accounts the court jester and his wife). They found refuge for a time in the village of Gheel, yet when the king learned of their flight, he pursued at once. Upon finding them, he again endeavored to talk Dymphna into marriage. Father Gerebran reproached him, at which the king ordered the priest killed on the spot. This had no effect on the teenage girl, thus securing her martyrdom as well, for the frenzied father pulled a dagger and cut off his daughter's head.

Dymphna's remains rest today in Gheel at a shrine in her honor, near an infirmary run by religious sisters, famous for kindness in their care of the mentally ill. Like its sister shrine in Belgium, the National Shrine of St. Dymphna in the United States is a tribute to prayers, miracles and the continual sacrifices offered for those who suffer any kind of mental anguish. Far from the college psychology classes and psychiatric offices of busy cities, this simple shrine in a country setting offers an ancient therapy for mental and emotional suffering — charity and calm, peace and prayer. Which is to say that it's a perfect place of pilgrimage for anyone bearing a cross of any kind through this life. And who among us doesn't fit that description?

Mary Soltis writes from Parma, Ohio.