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St Helena

St Helena
  • Century: 3rd & 4th Century
  • Patronage: Archaeologists, Converts, Difficult Marriages, Divorced People, Discoveries
  • Feast Day: August 18th

Helena’s birthplace is not known with certainty.  It is believed that she was a native of Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor.  Her son Constantine renamed the city “Helenopolis” after her death in 330, which supports the belief that the city was her birthplace.  

Little is known of her early life, although St. Ambrose was the first to call her “stable-maid” or “inn-keeper”.  He makes this fact a virtue, calling Helena a “good stable-maid”.  Helena married Constantius, and it is believed that they met while he was stationed in Asia Minor while serving Emperor Aurelian.  It is said that upon meeting, they were both wearing identical silver bracelets, and Constantius saw her as his soul mate, sent by God.  Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine I.  In order to obtain a wife more suitable with his rising status, Constantius divorced Helena some time before 289.  

Helena and her son Constantine grew up in the court of Diocletion at Nicomedia, where Constantine grew to be a member of the inner circle.  Helena never remarried and lived for a time in obscurity, always remaining close to her son.  Constantine was proclaimed Augustus of the Roman Empire in 306 by Constantius’ troops after the death of his dad.  He and his mom returned to public life in 312, returning to the imperial court.  

Constantine appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition.  In 326-328, Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine.  She was responsible for the construction of two churches, the Church of the Nativity – Bethlehem, and the church on the Mount of Olives, sites of Christ’s birth and Ascension.  Emperor Hadrian had built a temple over the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina.  Helena ordered the temple torn down and according to legend, chose a site to begin excavating, which lead to the recovery of three different crosses.  

Through Bishop Marcarius of Jerusalem, she had a woman who was near death brought to the city.  When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross, she suddenly recovered.  Helena declared the cross with which the woman had been touched to be the True Cross.  On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”, as well as other churches to be built on sites dedicated by Helena.  Legend also has it that Helena also found the “nails of the crucifixion”.  She wanted to use their miraculous power to aid her son, allegedly placing one in Constantine’s helmet, and another in the bridle of his horse.   

Helena left Jerusalem to return to Rome in 327, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palaces’s private chapel, where they can still be seen today.  Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross.  Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with the earth brought from Golgotha by Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that, shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of Nero.  According to one tradition, Helena acquired the Holy Tunic on her trip to Jerusalem and sent it to Trier.  

St. Helena died in 330, with her son at her side.  She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, outside of Rome.  St. Helen is best known for her discovering the True Cross of Jesus, and her piety.  

Practical Take Away

St. Helena’s life shows us many things.  She had a strong faith, that led her to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  While there, she uncovered many relics from Jesus’ time, and probably the most notable was the True Cross of Jesus.  She has been credited as bringing many relics from the time of Jesus back, and had given them to the Church in Rome.  Her finding these relics, breathes life into our faith, giving us solid proof of the life of Jesus.  To think that all of this was found prior to her death in 330, and that most of these items can still be seen today, is a real testiment to her great discoveries and work.  May her intercession in our lives, strengthen our faith through the great discoveries she made, and the relics that are preserved to this day for us to see.