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Dienst toerisme en stadsanimatie

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2440 Geel

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01 History (English)

Koning en Dimpna

The Geel tradition of psychiatric family care can be traced back to the legend of Saint Dymphna. According to this legend, Dymphna, the daughter of an Irish king, fled her father around 600 AD, fearing the latter’s incestuous intentions. Dymphna crossed the North Sea and ended up in Zammel, a hamlet of Geel. Her father came after her though. When he found her, he had her beheaded near Saint Martin’s Chapel in the centre of Geel.


We know for a fact that from the 13th century AD Saint Dymphna was invoked in the region in prayers to cure various illnesses, especially insanity, as her father was deemed to have acted in a fit of insanity. Pilgrims - some of them were labeled as possessed or mad - came to Geel to complete religious penitence rituals for nine days in the church of saint Dymphna. In the 15th century a ‘sick room’ was built next to the church. Pretty soon, however, the sick room was too small to accommodate all pilgrims right away. The patients were placed in the care of local families and many of them stayed longer. Foster parents received financial compensation in return for their services. In the middle-ages and early modern period clerics used to organize the psychiatric family care programme.


In 1850, the Belgian Parliament decided to tackle the situation of the mentally ill and passed the Law on the Mentally Ill. Geel became a “colony” and was put under supervision of the Minister of Justice. In 1861 an infirmary was built as temporary accommodation for the mentally ill who first arrived in Geel and for those who needed medical assistance for shorter periods of time. Notwithstanding its long tradition, family care in Geel is more alive than ever. Increasingly, family care is seen as a more humane alternative for extended hospital admission.

Sint-Dimpna Ommegang 2010

From 1900 the ‘Merciful City’ organised a Saint Dymphna celebration every 25 years. The Saint Dymphna procession grew out to be a religious procession, with extras groups, horsemen, floats and bishops and prelates who escorted the silver reliquary. In 1975 the religious Saint Dymphna procession was transformed in a more secular one, evoking the history of Geel and family care. Since then, the Saint Dymphna procession goes out every five years and is now one of the most famous processions of the country

In 2005 new formats were developed to tell and celebrate the foster care story in the community during the Dymphna days, with various activities. The main event was the GheelaMania-project, involving a large part of the population. 10.000 people came to watch this spectacle about the legend of Saint Dymphna and the history of Geel and family care.