As you know there are thousands of saints recognized by the Catholic Church. These saints span from the first century to the twentieth century. And many of these are saints for which we have very little information other than a solid sense that the saint has been venerated since his or her death.
On the other hand, there are also a large number of saints for which we have very detailed information about their lives. Between these two extremes, there are saints for whom we have some information and usually a single life event that marks them out. St. Helena of Constantinople (c. 248 - c. 330) falls into the last category.
From an historical perspective, it is interesting that little is known about Helena because after the ascension of her son Constantine to the throne of the Roman Empire in 306, Helena became the most powerful woman in the world as the mother of the emperor. Just like the queen mothers of the Ancient Near East, Constantine allowed his mother to wield a great deal of power and to have a large number of resources at her disposal. And although, the Roman Empire during Constantine's reign was not what it used to be, it was still a very significant power which had not begun its rapid decline.
Helena's Early Life and First Turning Point
To begin with, the actual birthplace of Helena is not known with any certainty. Based on the information available from the earliest sources there are two possible locations. One early source indicates that she was of Greek origin and born in the seaside town of Drepanum in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor or modern day Turkey. Other sources indicate that she is a native of Colchester in England. Although historians tend now to lean toward the former location, there is not enough strong evidence to discount the English claim to be the land of her birth.
It is clearer that she was not from royal blood. Neither was Helena from the lower classes of Roman society. Instead, she would have come from a middle class stock. And it was said by St. Ambrose, who wrote about her in the fourth century, that Helena worked as an inn keeper. Other than that, very little is known about her early life.
The first turning point in Helena's life came when she met a Roman military officer named Constantius. Again, unfortunately, there are no strong historical details as to how this meeting came about or even where it happened. There is a legend that when the two met, they found they were wearing similar bracelets which Constantius took as a sign that they were soul mates. Whether that happened or not, Helena and Constantius were married.
Around the year 272 on the 27th of February, Helena gave birth to a son whom they named Constantine. It would be the couple's only son. At the time, the Helena and Constantius were living in Naissus in Serbia.
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Divorced and Retired to an Outpost of the Empire
As a successful military commander, Constantius' star kept rising and he began to have ambitions for more and more power beyond simply leading more troops into battle. Eventually, he decided that Helena was not the bride he needed in order to help him reach his ambitious goals and he divorced her some time before the year 298. At that time, he married Theodora who was the daughter of Maximian who was under Constantius' command. The couple had six children.
After her divorce, Helena retired to the Germanic city of Trier. It is believed that the present day cathedral of Trier sits atop where her palace was located. More importantly, it is believed that it is in Trier that Helena embraced Christianity under the influence of a certain Lactantius.
Constantius went on to become the Augustus or senior western emperor of the western part of the Roman Empire in the power sharing agreement that existed under what was called the tetrarchy. He spent most of his time in that role fighting military campaigns to put down rebellions among the English and the Franks. As part of the agreement of power sharing between the western and eastern parts of the empire, it was understood that the sons of the senior emperors would assume power upon the death of the fathers.
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Helena's Son Constantine Becomes Emperor
Thus, in the year 306, when Constantius died, his army gave its loyalty to his son Constantine. Constantine was then declared to be the Augustus of the Roman Empire. He soon sent for his mother to join him, and as a convert to Christianity she began to have influence over her son's decisions as a leader.
Over the next several years through several battles, Constantine consolidated his power. In the famous battle against Maxentius, based on a vision he had, Constantine had his troops paint the chi (X) and rho (P) Greek letters on their shields in order to represent the name of Christ which in Greek begins with those two letters. In the ensuing battle, Constantine was victorious and his rival Maxentius was killed. Eventually, Constantine would become sole emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the empire and rule until his death in 337. Until her death, Helena would have a mother's influence upon her son. And she provided him with helpful guidance in ruling the vast empire. In return, in the year 325, Constantine appointed his mother Augusta which is the equivalent of mother of the emperor.
The Legalization of Christianity
The turning point for Christianity came in the year 313. In that year, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which allowed for Christians to practice their faith without persecution. It also allowed for the return of confiscated Church property and the removal of penalties for being a Christian. The document actually allowed for the free practice of all religions which was a remarkable proclamation for that time period. It is certain that the influence of his mother helped make this political decision one easier for Constantine to make.
With the resources provided to her by Constantine, Helena took advantage of this new found freedom for Christianity and helped to build a number of churches throughout the empire. She was said to have slipped into masses unnoticed and to have helped out with the daily chores at a convent.
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Her Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Most importantly when she was in her late 70s, Helena embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land around the year 326. Again, she helped build churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. She acquired many relics which she had shipped back to Constantinople which had become the imperial city.
The most important relic which she found was the True Cross. Initially, Helena found that Jerusalem was still recovering from its destruction in the year 70 by Titus when he put down the Jewish rebellion. Around 130, the Emperor Hadrian had build a temple to Venus over the spot of Jesus' tomb. Helena had the temple destroyed and began excavation.
The account by Ambrose indicates that as part of the excavation, the remains of three crosses were found. Helena asked for help from Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem in identifying which might be the True Cross. They brought a woman who was on the point of death and had her touch each of the three crosses. When she touched the third cross, she was healed. It was determined that this was then the True Cross of Christ. Later, when the tomb was found, Helena had the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built.
Helena returned in triumph from her pilgrimage with many relics, including pieces of the True Cross, and having established important churches on various holy places. Her own journey was coming to and end. With her son by her side, she died peacefully around the year 330.
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