Who Was Saint Helena?

Saint Helena

Statue of Saint Helena
at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome

The Story of Saint Helena

By Sr. Mary Lois, OSH,

(d. 330, feast day August 18)

Helena was at one time the most important woman in the world, yet we know next to nothing about her. She was born about the middle of the third century, possibly in Drepanum on the Nicomedian Gulf, a seaside resort now quite vanished, in Turkey. She was of humble parentage. St. Ambrose referred to her as a stabularia, or inn-keeper. Nevertheless, she became the lawful wife of Constantius I Chlorus. Her first and only son, Constantine the Great, was born in Naissus in Upper Moesia, Serbia, in the year 274.

In 292 Constantius, being co-Regent of the West, gave himself up to considerations of a political nature and forsook Helena in order to marry Theodora, the step-daughter of Emperor Maximianus Herculius. In a court full of intrigue and murder, Helena formed no party, took no steps against her rival, but quietly accepted her disgrace. After her divorce, she settled at Trier (Trèves) where the Cathedral probably stands on the foundations of her palace. Almost certainly it was there that she became Christian.

Everyone knows the story of Constantine's dramatic conversion. The Church historian Eusebius, whose Life of Constantine is a chief source of information for the period, relates that on the eve of a great battle in the year 312, Constantine had a dream (by some accounts the dream was preceded by a day-time vision) of a flaming cross in the sky, and beneath it were the words, in Greek, "In this sign conquer." He proceeded south to the Tiber, where his victory over the Emperor Maxentius gave him control of the Western Empire.

Constantine remained faithful and loyal to his mother and probably effected her conversion. Lactantius, who was tutor to her grandson Crispus, may have helped instruct her. Her conversion is directly attested by this statement: "She [his mother] became under his [Constantine's] influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind." On the death of Constantius Chlorus in 308, Constantine, who succeeded him, summoned his mother to the imperial court, conferred on Helena the title of Augusta, ordered that all honor should be paid her as the mother of the sovereign, and had coins struck bearing her effigy.

St. Helena Builder of Churches

Tradition links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier. There is no reason to reject this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. Despite her advanced age, she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman. Then, when she "had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Savior," she had two churches erected. One was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. She also embellished the sacred grotto with rich ornaments.

Icon of Saint Helena by Ellen Francis, OSH

Icon of Saint Helena
by Sr. Ellen Francis, OSH

This sojourn in Jerusalem proved to be the starting point of the legend, first recorded by Rufinus, as to the discovery of the Cross of Christ. The Empress Helena visited the Holy Places such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Sinai, determined where their churches would be built, and she and her son officially established for Christendom the cult of the Cross. However it is likely that the present Mount Sinai is not the true Sinai of Exodus but a mountain Helena decreed by fiat as Mount Sinai. That declaration is taken on faith by pilgrims to this day.

Eusebius tells of Constantine undertaking the excavations on Golgotha and building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. Later legend will have this archeology and architecture be Helena's. Eusebius affirms Helena's actions in this area in connection with the Bethlehem cave and basilica and with that on the Mount of Olives. He touchingly describes how she wished, quoting Psalm 132.7, to "worship at the place whereon his feet have stood." He also describes how generous her gifts were to the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing. She liberated some from imprisonment or from the bitter servitude of the mines, still others she restored from exile.

But for this final, triumphant journey, she would have had no fame. We might think of her as someone who made the best of both worlds. The strong purpose of her pilgrimage shed a new light on the long years of uneventful retirement, showing us that it was by an act of will that she accepted her position. There is little of heroism or genius in any of this. We can assume that she was a thoroughly good woman in an age when palaces were mostly occupied by the wicked; but she lived grandly and comfortably, whereas most of the saints in every age have accepted poverty as the condition of their calling. We know of no suffering of hers, physical, spiritual, or mental, beyond the normal bereavements, disappointments, and infirmities which we all expect to bear. Yet she lived in an age when Christians had often to choose between flight, apostasy, or brutal punishment. Where, one may ask, lies her sanctity? Where the particular lesson for us who live in such very different circumstances?

The world of Constantine, as we catch glimpses of it, is utterly remote from ours. There are certain superficial similarities. Poetry was dead and prose dying. Architecture had lapsed into the horny hands of engineers. Sculpture had fallen so low that in all his empire Constantine could not find a mason capable of decorating his triumphal arch and preferred instead to rob the two-hundred-year-old arch of Trajan. An enormous bureaucracy was virtually sovereign, controlling taxation on the sources of wealth, for the pleasure of city mobs and for the defense of frontiers more and more dangerously pressed by barbarians from the East. The civilized world was obliged to find a new capital. All this seems familiar, but for the event of supreme importance the rise of Christianity. Helena, more than anyone, stands in the heart of that event.

She visited the churches everywhere and made rich donations to them. Her stay in Rome is chiefly identified with the church of St. Croce in Gerusalemme. The Palatium Sessorianum formerly stood on the present location of this church and nearby were the Thermae Helenianae, baths which derived their name from the Empress. Here two inscriptions were composed in honor of Helena. The Sessorium, which was near the site of the Lateran, probably served as Helena's residence when she stayed in Rome, so that it is quite possible for a Christian basilica to have been erected on this spot by Constantine, at her suggestion and in honor of the true Cross.

Helena was still living in the year 326 when Constantine ordered the execution of his son Crispus. According to Socrates's account, the emperor in 327 improved Drepanum, his mother's native town, and decreed that it should be called Helenopolis. And she accepted that too.

Only in her religious practices did she maintain her private station, slipping into Mass at Rome among the crowd, helping with the housework at the convent on Mount Sion. She accepted the fact that God had a unique use for her. Others faced the lions in the circus; others lived in caves in the desert. She was to be St. Helena Empress, not St. Helena Martyr or St. Helena Anchorite. She accepted a state of life full of dangers to the soul in which many foundered, and she remained fixed in her purpose until at last it seemed God had no other need of her except to continue to the end, a kind old lady.

Helena Finds the True Cross

Saint Helena

Then came her call to a single peculiar act of service, something not attempted before and unrepeatable—the finding of the True Cross. We have no absolute certainty that she found it. The old sneer that there was enough "wood of the cross" to build a ship, though still repeated, has long been nullified. All the splinters and shavings venerated everywhere have been patiently measured and found to comprise a volume far short of a cross. We know that most of these fragments have a plain pedigree back to the early fourth century. But there is no guarantee which would satisfy an antiquary of the authenticity of Helena's discovery. If she found the True Cross, it was by direct supernatural aid, not by archaeological reasoning.

There are certain elements about the surviving relics which are so odd that they seem to preclude the possibility of fraud. The "Label", for example—the inscription Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews—now preserved in Santa Croce, seems the most unlikely product of a forger's art. And who would have tried to cheat her? But it is nevertheless possible that Helena was tricked, or that she and her companions mistook casual beams of timber, builders' waste long-buried, for the wood they sought. It's possible that the Label somehow got added to her treasure later. Even so, her enterprise was something life bringing.

It is not fantastic to claim that her discovery entitles her to a place in the Doctorate of the Church, for she was not merely adding one more stupendous trophy to the hoard of relics which were everywhere being unearthed and enshrined.

Everything about the new religion was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished—everything except the unreasonable assertion that God became human and died on the Cross, not as a myth or an allegory but truly God and truly incarnate, tortured to death at a particular moment in time at a particular geographical place as a matter of plain historical fact.

Constantine was no match for the religious skeptics. He was schooled on battlefields and in diplomatic conferences where retreat was often the highest strategy, where truth was a compromise between irreconcilable opposites, busy with all the affairs of state and unused to the technical terms of philosophy. He was quite out of his depth.

The situation of the Church was perilous, though few saw it. And at that time of crisis, a resolute old woman with a single concrete, practical task before her suddenly emerged from luxurious retirement in the far north—to turn the eyes of the world back to the planks of wood on which their salvation hung.

It is probable that Helena returned from Palestine to her son who was then residing in the Orient. Constantine was with her when she died in Nicomedia, at the advanced age of eighty years or thereabouts. This must have been about the year 330, for the last coins which are known to have been stamped with her name bore this date. Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. It is presumed that her remains were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese of Reims, as recorded by the monk Altmann in his Translatio. Her porphyry sarcophagus is in the Vatican Museum. She was revered as a saint, and the veneration spread, early in the ninth century, even to Western countries. Her feast falls on August 18.

We see that Helena's building programs at Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives preceded those of Constantine in Jerusalem. Eusebius notes that Constantine's work there is partly in memory of his mother.

Thus, as Christian Empress, Helena could give to the women and men in her own time a pattern centered upon poverty and power, piety and pilgrimage. What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that God wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were created.

Legends of St. Helena

The story is often told how Saint Helena had arrived in Jerusalem on her pilgrimage in search of The True Cross. She believed that God had told her that she would eventually find this most holy of relics and restore it as a symbol of Christian worship. Helena had been searching for many days before she noticed a sweet-smelling plant growing on a barren hill outside Jerusalem. Immediately, she gave instructions to dig under the plant, where she discovered the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, England, started the legend that Helena was the daughter of the king of Colchester, but there is no historical foundation for this. In Celtic Britain, the legend persists that she was a Christian British slave from York, that she became Constantius' concubine, and that he died A.D. 274 in York. It is true that Constantius spent some time in Britain putting down a rebellion among the Picts and Scots and died at York, but it is thought that he had cast off Helena and taken a new wife long before this time.

In liturgical art Helena is depicted as an empress, holding a cross.

Updated: February 8, 2010