For over 700 years, the parish of St. Dymphna and the residents of the village of Geel, Belguim, has been been ministering to people with mental disorders by welcoming them into their homes and caring for them.
St. Dymphna was a 7th-century Irish princess who fled to the village of Geel from “a maddened father and devoted her life to serving the mentally disabled. But she became a martyr when her father discovered her location and traveled to Geel to behead her.”
The town built St. Dymphna’s church in the 14th century to honor the saint and enshrine her supposed remains. It became a popular pilgrimage site for people across Europe, who would bring loved ones to the shrine in the hopes of finding relief from their mental distress.
It isn’t meant to be a treatment or therapy. The people are not called patients, but guests or boarders. They go to Geel and join households to share a life with people who can watch over them. Today, there are about 250 boarders in Geel. One of them is a Flemish man named Luc Ennekans. He’s slim and has green eyes, and he’s 51 years old. NPR’s Lulu Miller went to Geel and met him and his host family there and reported this story for Invisibilia.
Like all of the guests in the town today, Ennekans first went to a public psychiatric hospital in Geel that manages the boarder program. Ennekans saw medical professionals and received treatment and an evaluation. Then he was paired with a household. His hosts, Toni Smit and Arthur Shouten, say that living with Ennekans was rough at the start.
Ennekans became deeply attached to Smit. “If it were up to Luc, he would be hugging and kissing me all day,” Smit says. He showered her with such affection, bringing her flowers, little kisses, linking arms with her on walks, that it began to interfere with Smit and Shouten’s marriage. “You couldn’t even give each other a hug or Luc is standing behind us,” Shouten says. Wrinkles like this are common, according to the couple. They’ve had six boarders over the years, each with a unique set of challenges.
How and why does this ministry work? There have been many studies but not many answers.
Over time, Jay says, boarders had become such a part of life and society that distinctions between them and nonboarders blurred. And with that, “a lot of the problems we associate [with mental illness] kind of fade away,” Jay says. “Like trying to navigate a world full of kind of normal people who don’t understand what’s going on and aren’t tolerant towards it….”
…While scholarship of Geel is rich with observation, there remain few long-term, empirical studies on how these patients do in the system. “The successes and shortcomings of Geel’s system of foster family care had never been thoroughly or systematically examined,” Goldstein noted in a speech presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in 1998. In the 1960s, researchers embarked on a 10-year project studying Geel that Goldstein took part in, but it never reached completion.
Goldstein continued studying Geel throughout her life, and some of her work shows that boarder life is stable. Boarders tend to stay in family care for years. In some cases, when boarders’ caretakers grow too old or die, they continue to live with their caretakers’ children. In 2005, nearly a third of boarders lived in a foster home for more than 50 years.