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Saint of the week

The 80-year-old woman who discovered the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified

St Helena (August 18), the mother of Constantine, became celebrated for her charity to the poor and to prisoners

By on Monday, 15 August 2011

Helena (c 249-c 329) was the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. She is held up to reverence as the discoverer of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

The story that she was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester is not found before the 12th century. In reality she was probably born in Drepanum (modern Izmit) at the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara.

According to Constantine’s secretary Eutroprius she sprang ex obscuriore matrimonio. St Ambrose, writing later in the fourth century, reported that Helena had been a stabularia, or stable-maid.

At all events, as a young woman she met, and may have married, an up-and-coming Roman general called Constantius Chlorus. Around 274 they had a son, Constantine, who was born at Naissus, modern Nis in Serbia.

Whatever Helena’s relation to Constantius Chlorus, she was rudely set aside in order that, in 289, he might marry Theodora, daughter of the Emperor Maximian. In 293 he was appointed Caesar, in charge of Gaul, Spain and Britain. He died in 305 at York, where Constantine, his son by Helena, was proclaimed emperor.

Meanwhile Helena had apparently been living in obscurity at the court of Diocletian, who ruled the Eastern Empire from Nicomedia, near Drepanum. Her son Constantine remained devoted to her; and after becoming emperor, brought her back to centre stage, both in Trier and Rome. 

The contemporary historian Eusebius recorded that Helena converted to Christianity around 312, after her emperor son, inspired by a flaming cross, had destroyed his rivals at the Milvian Bridge. She became celebrated for her charity to the poor and to prisoners.

Helena was almost 80, however, when, in 327-8, she made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had been desecrated in 130 by the Emperor Hadrian, who had built a pagan temple on the supposed site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary.

Helena ordered its demolition, and then selected a spot close by to start digging for relics.

Three crosses were found, and the true one identified when a sick woman was cured after touching it. Nails and a tunic were also discovered. 

While in the Holy Land, Helena supervised work on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and on the Church of the Mount of Olives. 

She died soon after her return to Rome, and was buried on the Via Labicana.
Her remains are now in the Vatican Museum.

In 1950 Evelyn Waugh published a novel about Helena. “I liked her sanctity,” he explained, “because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry. She just discovered what it was that God had chosen for her and did it.”

  • D B McGinnity

    I have no wish to be irreverent or disrespectful but it would have been impossible for Helena to have discovered the True Cross of Christ because, the crosses (gibbets) were reused again and again. From the crucifixion of Christ up to the time of Helena, millions of people were crucified at Calvary, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 67 AD., when reputedly 200 people were crucified every day for several years. The truth of this information is so easy to check for those who have an inquiring mind in the library of any decent University, but especially The Library of Congress, The Bodleian Library Oxford , The Vatican Library and The National Library of Israel. If someone’s research finds that a 80 year old woman went exactly to the spot where Christ was crucified, and found the true cross, nails and thorns from Christ’s head, then I will be flummoxed. The research will make interesting reading.Imagine a person visiting Pas-de-Calis in France to find to find a specific relic (like the cross) from the time of The Battle of the Somme.

  • Honeybadger

    Various relics of Our Lord’s crucifixion are authentic and have been authenticated, including the Sudarium of Oviedo, Spain.

    The True Cross was buried after His death and was discovered by Helena. One of the Holy Nails was given to Constantine and he fitted it into the bridle of his horse.

    The spearhead of  Longinus (which pierced the side of Our Lord), which is also called the Spear of Destiny, is part of the Austrian Crown Jewels. The Nazis coveted it because they believed it guaranteed divine power to them. Coveting is how far they got, Thank God.

    In the early Christian church, remains, blood and relics of the martyrs were rescued and kept by the Christians and were put into altars where they celebrated Mass. The custom of putting relics into the altar where Mass is said continues.

    Many of these have been authenticated.

    St Helena, Pray for Us!

  • Cjkeeffe

    I see no intellectual problem with St Helene having found the place of the the true cross, unlike D B McGinnty. Christ was executed in about AD 33, it is probbale taht those devoted to him nicked the cross, just as those who witnesed the excutin of Charles I collected his blood on handichiefs. Is there evidence for the millions of not mere executions but of cricufixion between say AD 1 – 70? What was teh mean population of palastine at the time? Let alone at Calvary itself. In addition is the brut fact that Palastine has an oral tradition of telling stories and keeping facts alive (like the North American Indians or the Dogon Tribe in Mali). Thus it is highly likely that the memoray of where teh nicked cross was perserved was fed down to St Helene’s time. It is also recorded taht to test whetehr the cross was genuine or not taht the party placed a corpse onto it teh person was restored to live. But over and beyound all this is the fact that God can allow these things if He choses.
    And before anyone repeats teh Protestant myth of a ship hold (not forest) of True Crosses from Calvin a French artitect in the 18th Centuary debunked this by researching all known and lost relics of the True cross and descovered not that there where so many cross but taht the know relics are so less then would make a cross, so what happened to to teh lost relics of teh true cross.

  • D B McGinnity

    I believe that people ought to believe in the true cross, and all the other relics and religious artefacts if they wish to do so. It does no please me to be unkind about any religion, and I respect all shrines and places of pilgrimage for all religions. Regardless of what stories and paintings depict about the crucifixion, it would not have been possible for anyone to remove the cross as the executioner centurion would not have allowed relatives and friends into the places of execution.Marcus Aurelius saw the danger of Christian relics had Golgotha completely cleared of all remnants of Christian artefacts and idols, and he ordered that all Christian paraphernalia be removed in places of pilgrimage and have statues of Roman Gods erected instead. There is abundant proof and a plethora of references on these matters for those of an inquiring mind and an inclination for research. Essentially it does not matter whether the cross is true or not. All that matters is the people believe it to be true, and that is the purpose of the Vatican.

  • D B McGinnity

    The big problem that the Catholic Church has is that it can no longer suppress or censor information. Catholics can no longer be gagged by the threat of excommunication or being socially ostracised. Modernism or secularism as a consequence of modern communication is a fact of life, and is here to stay. Fewer and fewer Catholics accept the story of Christ’s life and death as depicted by the Catholic Church and Christians as a whole, and religion is not seen as a billion dollar business, that Christ would have deplored. For reasons already expressed, it would not have been possible for Helena or anyone else to have found the remnants of Christ’s cross. The story is not true.There has been so much hyperbole over the centuries about the crucifixion that all logic is clouded by piety and hysteria. The documented truth in the new testament is that Pontius Pilate released “Bar Abbas” In Hebrew and Aramaic; Bar =The Son of:, and Abba =The Father (The Son of the Father) The man (Jesus) known in colloquial terms as the Son of God. (A holy man favoured by God). Like today, the term ‘son’ is frequently used as a term of endearment and does not always imply that a favoured person the offspring of anyone. There was no crucifixion of Christ and the story is total invention, and the people have found out, that what Catholics call truth is nothing more than superstitious conjecture, incredulous assumptions and pious wishful thinking.

  • Davidfsavage

    “fewer and fewer”  I hope not….  you are obviously reading something D B McGINTY  I think it might be internet stuff – I have seen something like it- can I suggest you read the popes book  Jesus from cover to cover … as a source of scholarly information or better still prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit for guidance …  the Gospels.   
    Good Luck

  • D B McGinnity

    You judge me incorrectly about my information being internet material. As a true Christian you should not judge me at all, in keeping with the tenets of the eight commandment. You spelled my name wrong, even though it was spelled correctly at the top. That is the hallmark of gross discourtesy and lack of academic assiduousness, and for that reason I will not take any lessons from you about the gospels or anything else. I have read the Pope’s book several times and it regurgitates the same doctrinal inaccuracies as other previous books on the subject have done. It adds nothing new that is credible or convincing.

  • D Corrigan

    Well you are a card alright. You accuse the man of impropriety and then you disrespect his name by spelling it wrong, and to compound matters you suggest that he reads the Gospels. The attitude you display is the true veneer of Catholic piety. You can thank God that you are not like other men (Luke xviii, 9-14.).

  • Neisha Sookram