St. Helena of Constantinople
August 18, 2021
ST. HELENA OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Feast: August 18
St. Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great, and according to the sixth-century historian Procopius, she was born around AD 248 in Drepanum, which today is located in modern Turkey. Her full name became Flavia Julia Helena Augusta.
She married Constantius Chlorus, who would later become co-Regent of the Western part of the Roman Empire, but in order for that to happen, he had to divorce Helena after twenty-two years of marriage and marry Theodora, the step-daughter of the Emperor Maximinianus. After the divorce, Helena and her son were dispatched to the court of Emperor Diocletian at Nicomedia where Constantine grew to be a member of the inner circle. Her son remained faithful to her, and following the death of Constantius Chlorus, Constantine succeeded him. After he became emperor, he summoned his mother to the imperial court and conferred on her the title of Augusta, a Roman imperial honorific title given to empresses and honored women of the imperial families. Augustae could issue their own coinage, wear imperial regalia, and rule their own courts. Constantine ordered that all honor should be paid to her as the mother of the sovereign, and he had coins struck bearing her effigy. Some of the earliest coins were minted in Nicomedia.
She embraced Christianity following her son’s victory over Maxentius, and, according to Eusebius, she “became a devout servant of God,” and her influence helped Christianity spread throughout the empire. She had churches built over the sacred spots in Palestine, and at an advanced age, she undertook a journey to Palestine in the year AD 324, once her son had become the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. During this journey, she had two special churches constructed, one in Bethlehem, near the Grotto of the Nativity, and the other on the Mount of the Ascension. She had great concern for the poor, financially assisting both individuals and entire communities. It was during this time that a legend, first recorded by Rufinus, began circulating about how she had “found” the true cross.
There are several versions concerning how the cross was found. In some, Helena has a dream telling her where the cross is buried. In another tradition, the Ethiopian Coptic tradition still celebrated as Mesquel, she followed smoke from a bonfire to the site.
However, in the version that received the most circulation and became popular in the Middle Ages, she asks the people of Jerusalem to tell her the location. When the Jewish leaders of the city are silent, she places one of them, a man named Judas, in a well until he agrees to show her the site. After seven days, he prays to God for guidance and is told to reveal the location to her. Afterwards, Judas converts to Christianity and takes the name Kyriakis, “he who belongs to the Lord.”
Helena finds three crosses, nails, and the titulus (title) under a pagan temple. To determine which is the right cross, a deathly sick girl was brought to the site. She was touched by all three crosses, but upon being touched by the True Cross, she was restored to health.
St. Helena lived in a lavish house near the Lateran, and a pious tradition associates her with the founding of what would become the Vatican Gardens because, on that site, she spread earth brought from Golgotha to symbolically unite the blood of Jesus with that shed by thousands of early Christians who died under Nero. After her death, her residence was demolished, and the Church of the Holy Cross was built on that site. On November 8, 324, she received the title Augusta, and in AD 327, Constantine changed the name of his mother’s hometown to Helanopolis. She was about eighty-two when she died on August 18, 330, with her son at her side, and her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the Church of the Apostles. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, outside Rome on the Via Labicana. Her sarcophagus is on display in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum. Next to her is the sarcophagus of her granddaughter Saint Constantina (Saint Constance). Her skull is displayed in the Cathedral of Trier, in Germany. As the Muslims began advancing, her body was transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers in Reims, France in AD 849.
St. Helena is the patron saint of difficult marriages, divorced people, converts, and archaeologists. Her Feast Day is August 18.
Rev. David Powers, Sch.P.
A Reflection on St. Helena
Every parish has a special feast day. Our Parish Feastday is celebrated on September 14, the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. On this feast day, Christians throughout the world honor the Cross of Jesus, the Cross on which He died for our salvation. But on this feast day, we here, the people of this parish, honor also the one who found the Cross on the hill of Calvary, our holy patroness, St. Helena. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went with her son’s soldiers to Jerusalem.
Her mission—to find the buried Cross of Christ, the Cross that had been buried on the hill of Calvary for three hundred years. Helena’s soldiers dug on the hill and they found three crosses, one belonging to Jesus, the other to the two thieves, but each unmarked. Helena put her trust in the Lord to give her a sign. There was a crippled woman there and Helena touched each of the crosses to the woman. When she touched the True Cross of Jesus, the woman was cured. We are blessed to have a relic or piece of that Holy Cross in our church, in the reliquary over the statue of St. Helena. It was given to our founding pastor, our beloved Monsignor Arthur j. Scanlan, by then Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman when our parish was established in 1940.
What a beautiful feast day we have! This feast celebrates the Cross and it celebrates St. Helena, finder of the Cross. It celebrates St. Helena’s faith, her determination, her trust in God. She was an old woman in her eighties when she took upon herself her mission to find the True Cross. This old woman defied the world with the youthfulness of her love of Christ.
The great British writer Evelyn Waugh wrote about our patroness and mentions many things about St. Helena, but I draw your attention to these special words, “What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God, that He 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 each created.”
Those words deserve our careful reflection. St. Helena did not have a charmed life. Her life was filled with turmoil, rejection, and pain. St. Helena experienced heartache in her marriage. She was married to a Roman general Constantius Chlorus and loved him and their son Constantine dearly. But then she was divorced by her husband so that he could marry a princess to further his political ambitions. Yet St. Helena persevered, both in her devotion to her son Constantine and to her faith in the Lord Jesus. And the Lord gave her a task to accomplish. To paraphrase Evelyn Waugh’s words, it was “something which only she could do and for which she was created,” namely finding the Cross of Jesus on the hill of Calvary. If Helena had given up, if she had given in to her troubles, then she would not have accomplished the task for which she was created. Simply put, God needed St. Helena to disclose His Cross to the world. How marvelous that the Lord needed this 80-year old woman to reveal the Cross of our salvation!
The lesson for us is clear: we too must accept the trials of our lives, knowing that somehow God will accomplish His plan through us. All we have to do is put our lives in His hands, whatever problems we are facing, and let Him do the rest. May we all learn that lesson from our patron saint on this parish feast day. May St. Helena, who found the Cross of Jesus, help us on our journey of life, to find our purpose on earth and then one day to find our path to heaven.
“St. Helena, finder of the Cross, pray for us.”
Father Thomas B. Derivan
Saint Helena is distinguished in history as the woman led by God to find the True Cross of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
This is attested to by the early church with such formidable sources as St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Paulinus of Nola and others. St. Helena, born in 248 AD in Bythinia, part of modern-day Turkey, was the wife of the Roman Emperor, Constantinius Chlorus.
She was the mother of Constantine the Great, proclaimed Roman Emperor at the death of his father, Chlorus, in 306 AD. Although a pagan, Constantine was greatly influenced by Christianity and by the Christian faith of St. Helena. Consequently, he turned to the God of the Christians in a desperate prayer for victory when his rule over the empire was seriously threatened by the vastly superior military force of Maxentius.
At the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in a suburb of Rome, in 312 AD, he was given a startling sign of victory. He saw a flaming cross in the sky. Beneath the cross were the words, “In hoc signo vinces” – “In this sign, you will conquer.” Conquer he did and the empire was saved.
Soon after, with a sense of gratitude, Constantine planned to build a basilica in Jerusalem venerating the cross and sepulcher of Jesus. St. Helena at the age of 80 went to Jerusalem to supervise this work.
She found that the sacred place of the crucifixion and resurrection had been desecrated by the Romans, who had filled the area with rubble, erecting a temple to Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Seized with a burning desire to find the True Cross, St. Helena ordered the temple and statue demolished and excavations made in the pile of rubble. Three crosses were found together with some nails and a sign inscribed in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The sign, however, was found separated from the crosses.
There was the question as to which was the true Cross. Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem suggested the application of each cross to an incurably ill woman. The application of the first two failed. The third was successful. She was instantly cured. Thus, the True Cross was identified by a divine sign.
We honor our patroness St. Helena and ask her to pray for the saving graces won by Christ on the cross will fill out parish and school, our homes, and families.
Monsignor Philip M. Mulcahy
Patron Saint for the Divorced
The mother of Constantine, St. Helena (248-329) found the True
Cross in Jerusalem and, for many centuries, devotion to Saint
Helena has been linked to devotion to the Holy Cross. But there
is another, a sadder facet of Helena’s life. After 22 years of marriage, Helena’s husband, Constantius, divorced her.
Sources are also unsure as to the exact nature of their relationship: some say it was a legal marriage, others a common-law marriage; some say she was his wife, others his concubine. Whatever the specifics, the two were in a relationship that produced an heir, Constantine, around the year 272 A.D. They remained together for at least 15 years, but in 289 A.D. Constantius, who was Roman Emperor Caesar, divorced Helena to enter into a politically advantageous marriage with a younger woman, Theodora, who was the stepdaughter of Maximian, Roman Emperor Augustus at the time. Today, as civil divorce becomes more prevalent, St. Helena is offered to unhappy spouses as a heavenly patron who can truly sympathize with their anguish and offer prayers and on their behalf.
St Helena, pray for us!
PAINTED BY ST. LUKE AND FOUND BY ST. HELENA
Salus Populi Romani, which is enshrined in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, is one of the so-called “Luke images” of which there are many throughout the world. These were believed to have been painted from life by St. Luke himself. According to the legend: “after the Crucifixion, when Our Lady moved to the home of St.John, she took with her a few personal belongings–among which was a table built by the Redeemer in the workshop of St. Joseph. When pious virgins of Jerusalem prevailed upon St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, it was the top of this table that was used to memorialize her image.
While applying his brush and paints, St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her son, facts which the Evangelist later recorded in his Gospel. Legend also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena in the 4th century. Together with other sacred relics, the painting was transported to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for its enthronement.”
The image is five feet high by three and a quarter feet wide (117 x 79 cm) – very large for an icon, especially one with an early date. It is painted on a thick cedar panel. Mary wears a gold-trimmed dark blue mantle over a purple/red tunic. The letters in Greek at the top identify Mary as “Mother of God” (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ in lower case and ΜHΤHΡ ΘΕΟΥ in upper case), as is usual in Byzantine art (Christ may originally have had an inscription under later re-painting). Christ is holding a book in his left hand, presumably a Gospel Book. His right hand is raised in a blessing, and it is Mary, not he, who looks directly out at the viewer.
St. Helena, Discoverer of the True Cross (250-330)
St. Helena, who was later known as Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, was the mother of Constantine the Great, and she was credited after her death with having discovered fragments of the True Cross of Christ and the tomb in which Jesus was buried at Golgotha.
She was born at Drepanum in Bithynia, later renamed after her Helenopolis, about the year 250. Of humble origin, Helena was employed as a stabularia, which might be rendered as ‘barmaid’ or the like. She became the wife or perhaps the concubine of a soldier of Balkan origin named Flavius Constantius, to whom she bore one child, a son named Constantinus, on February 27, probably in the year 272, at Naissus (Nis). Constantius became an officer and then governor of Dalmatia, before being appointed Praetorian Prefect by the emperor Maximian in about A.D. 289.
On 1 March 293 Constantius was raised to the rank of Caesar, i.e. deputy emperor, and was obliged to divorce or set aside Helena in order to marry Maximian’s daughter Theodora. Thereafter Helena disappears from view for many years. She reappears after Constantine had become emperor in the west and had taken control of Rome.
There she was presented with the Sessorium, an imperial palace outside the city walls. She devoted some attention to this building, having its baths restored on a lavish scale and giving it a new water-supply with its own aqueduct, subsequently named Aqua Augustea. Constantine’s biographer, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, reports that she was converted to Christianity by her son. She received the title ‘Most Noble Lady’ (nobilissima femina) at latest in A.D. 318 and coins with her name and this title and her portrait, were struck in modest quantities. Shortly after Constantine gained control of the whole empire in A.D. 324, Helena, together with Constantine’s wife Fausta, was raised to the rank of Augusta. She took the imperial names Flavia, generally abbreviated Fl., and Julia.
Inscriptions from the bases of statues in her honour call her ‘Our Lady Flavia Augusta Helena’ or ‘Our Lady Fl. Jul. Helena, Most Pious Augusta’ and coins bearing her name and portrait were now issued in greater quantities. It is no doubt significant that on one inscription, set up by a high official, Helena is explicitly described as ‘most chaste wife of the late emperor Constantius’ (divi Constanti castissimae coniugi), as if to dispel rumors that she had only been Constantius’ concubine. It is likewise surely no coincidence that Constantine included women who worked in taverns (dominae tabernae) among those protected by his stern anti-adultery legislation. In other words, his mother may have been only a stubularia, but the profession was not to be treated as effectively equivalent to prostitution.
In A.D. 326 Constantine’s eldest son—and only child by his first wife Minervina— Crispus, who had already been raised to the rank of Caesar, was suddenly sentenced to death by Constantine and executed at Pola in Istria. The real reasons for Crispus’ condemnation will no doubt never be known. Sources hostile to Constantine claim that his stepmother Fausta had fallen in love and that when Crispus repulsed her advances she accused him of attempted rape.
This version is doubtless invented, for the simple reason that Crispus had been in the west, at Trier, while Fausta was with Constantine in the east. However, Fausta may well have played a part in turning Constantine against her stepson, in the interests of her own sons. Hence it is no surprise that when Constantine arrived in Rome ten days after Crispus’ death, on 15 July 326, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his first assumption of the purple, Helena intervened. She appeared before Constantine dressing in mourning clothes and either revealed to him facts that he did not know or at any rate planted the seeds of suspicion against Fausta. Shortly afterward Fausta was suffocated in the steam room of the palace baths, having evidently decided on suicide.
Helena now had no rival as the First Lady of the empire. Constantine would soon rename her birthplace Drepanum after her and another Helenopolis was created in Palestine. Indeed, shortly after these violent deaths in the imperial family, Helena set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Her prayers at the holy places were publicly presented, in the version of Eusebius as an act of thanksgiving for the triumph of the Christian empire, ‘for so great a son, the emperor, and his most pious sons’ – the Caesars Constantine II and Constantius II.
St. Ambrose would later call her journey ‘the pilgrimage of an anxious mother’. Traveling via Syria, she came to see for herself the churches which Constantine had ordered to be built in Jerusalem and to pray there for her son. Faust’s mother Eutropia also found her way to Jerusalem (but there is no indication that the two traveled together). The whole imperial court had returned to the east by the spring of A.D. 327 and Helena’s journey probably began in that year, no light undertaking for a woman in her late seventies.
Her journey was very much a royal passage. The cities through which she traveled benefited from her largesse, as did the soldiers. Besides this, she exhibited specifically Christian beneficence, providing money and housing for the poor, releasing prisoners, and restoring exiles. ‘Even in the smallest towns,’ she did not overlook the churches, Eusebius. However, it seems that she was in some way snubbed at the great metropolis of Antioch by its bishop, Eustathius, who perhaps disparaged her lowly origins.
The real problem was doubtless a matter of theology. Helena particularly venerated the memory of Lucian, a priest of Antioch martyred at Nicomedia in A.D. 312. Lucian had been the teacher of Arius, whose doctrines had already begun to create discord within the church, which the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 had not really resolved. Eustathius was an uncompromising upholder of orthodoxy, who had banished those in his clergy suspected of Arianism.
Eusebius of Caesarea, who probably met Helena during her stay in Palestine, was, by contrast, an admirer of Arius. He stresses Helena’s piety, her frequent attendance at church and above all her endowment and rich adornment of churches. Constantine’s church-building programme included Mamre, where God had appeared to Abraham, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and, outside Palestine, the places where the early martyrs were revered. The founding of the church at Mamre is associated with Constantine’s mother-in-law Eutropia. Helena played a significant role in building the churches at Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives, which
Constantine personally dedicated a few years later, to honor the memory of his mother. Eusebius reports that Jesus’ birthplace was ‘adorned by the pious Empress with wonderful monuments, as she adorned the holy grotto there in manifold fashion.”
Helena’s name is associated in the history of the Church with the legend that she found the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The increased reverence for the Cross as a symbol of Christian belief during the Constantinian period naturally played a role here. But neither the author of the Pilgrimage from Bordeaux of A.D. 333, nor Eusebius, who died in A.D. 339, refers to relics of the Cross.
The former mentions only the rock of Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre, and the new basilica of Constantine. All the same, a few years later the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyri, refers several times in his Catechetical Lectures (A.D. 350) to pieces of wood from the cross being already scattered around the Mediterranean lands. Certainly, as early as A.D. 359 a church in Mauretania had a collection of relics which included a fragment of the cross. Further, Cyril, in his letter to Constantius II, explicitly dates the discovery of the cross to the reign of Constantine, when, through the favor of God, ‘the holy places which had been hidden were revealed’. It was clearly through the belief that the fragments were discovered by the building operations at Golgotha that resulted in the ‘Invention (discovery) of the Cross’ being celebrated at the same time as the festival for the dedication of Constantine’s new buildings, the Encaenia.
The point is made by the pilgrim Egeria in the 380s: ‘the Encaenia are celebrated with the highest honor, because the Cross of the Lord was found on that same day’ – namely September 14 (the day was later changed in the west to May 3, and the Invention of the Cross continued to be remembered on that day until 1960). Regular veneration of the relics was established by the church in Jerusalem soon after this and St. Jerome would discuss the lignum crucis in a sermon preached at the Encaenia.
The circumstances of the discovery and Helena’s role in it were evidently beginning to crystallize in both east and west well before the end of the fourth century. St. John Chrysostom, comments ca. A.D. 390 on the actual crucifixion, as described in John’s Gospel (19.17-19): ‘And he went out, bearing the cross for himself, unto the place called The place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and with him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. And Pilate wrote a title also and put it on the cross. And there was written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’
After the burial of the cross, so John Chrysostom, ‘it was likely that it would be discovered in later times, and that the three crosses would lie together; so that the cross of Our Lord might not go unrecognized, it would, firstly, be lying in the middle, and secondly it was distinguished by its inscription – whereas the crosses of the thieves had no labels.’ Clearly, the story was known that the True Cross had been recognized because of its inscription.
Some five years later St. Ambrose of Milan delivered the funeral oration for Theodosius the Great (25 February A.D. 395). Referring to Theodosius’ Christian predecessors, Ambrose, of course, gives prominence to Constantine, whose mother, ‘Helena of sacred memory,’ the bona stabularia, who visited the stabulum where the Lord was born. She had been moved by the Holy Spirit to search for the Cross: ‘she opened up the earth, scattered the dust, and found three crosses in disarray.’
In this version the True Cross was not, as Chrysostom claims, lying still in the middle, but it could be identified by its inscription. Ambrose dwells, further, on another aspect, the nails of the Crucifixion, which Helena sent to Constantine, one for his diadem, the other for his horse’s bridle—thus fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (14.20): ‘In that day there shall be upon the bells of the horses, HOLY UNTO THE LORD.’
Two years later (A.D. 397), a prominent churchman, Rufinus of Aquileia, returned to Italy after nearly twenty years on the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem. In this Ecclesiastical History, there is a full-scale account of Helena’s discovery. He dates her journey to the time of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Inspired by divine visions she came to Jerusalem and made inquiries from the inhabitants about the site of the Crucifixion. It was, she learned, under the pagan temple of Venus, which she ordered to be demolished. When the three crosses were excavated, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, proposed a sure means of confirming which was the True one. They were taken to the bedside of a distinguished lady who was dangerously ill.
As the bishop prayed for a revelation, the touch of the True Cross immediately cured her. Helena at once ordered the construction of a magnificent basilica above the spot where the cross had been found. Rufinus also knows the story of the nails and adds that a piece of the cross itself was sent to Constantine at Constantinople. Rufinus further reports how Helena waited at table on the consecrated virgins she encountered at Jerusalem. Later sources have her founding a nunnery at the holy places.
The story continued to be elaborated by subsequent ecclesiastical historians—Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, in due course by Gregory of Tours. New details appear. It was a Jew named Judas who pointed Helena to the place—he was duly converted and indeed became bishop of Jerusalem (To be martyred under Julian the Apostate). Not only did the True Cross cure a very sick woman, it also raised someone from the dead. At Rome, Constantine’s Sessorian basilica, duly endowed with relics of the cross, would become the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalmme and perpetuate the memory of Helena’s miraculous find.
It was left to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the eleventh century to propagate the story that Helena was the daughter of a British king, Coel of Kaelcolim or Colchester, after whose death the Roman general Constantius seized that throne and married Helena, whose “beauty was greater than that of any other young woman in the kingdom.’ In the twentieth century, Evelyn Waugh published a historical novel, Helena (1950), making full use of all the legendary material.
The appearance of the real Helena is known only from the coinage and from cameos, mosaics and a wall-painting in the Constantinian palace at Trier. In the later, she is shown with a veil and grey hair. On the coins, her hair is tied in a knot at the nape of her neck and she wears a pear-shaped necklace, earrings, and a diadem. Helena died at Rome, probably ca. 330, not long after returning from her pilgrimage, aged about eighty. She was laid to rest in a newly built basilica on the Via Labicana.