“St. Helena was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great and an Empress of the Roman Empire. Very little is known about Helena’s early life, but it is believed she is from Drepanum (later known as Helenopolis) in Asia Minor and born into a poor family and lower class in the Roman culture of the day. St. Ambrose described Helena as a “good stable-maid.”
Despite her background, Helena married Constantius Chlorus. With him she birthed her only son, Constantine. around the year 274. Nearly two decades later in 292, Constantius, now co-Regent of the West, got swept up in his rising stature and divorced Helena for Theodora, the step-daughter of Emperor Maximinianus Herculius. It is believed he did this to advance his own reputation and advance his standing in the Roman society.
Constantine was forever loyal to his dear mother, whom he loved very much. As he grew and became a member of the inner circle, he never left Helena’s side. Following the death of Constantius in 308, Constantine became Emperor and summoned his mother back into inner circle and the imperial court. Helena received the title of Augusta.
Constantine ordered all to honor his mother. He even had coins minted, bearing her image. Through her son’s influence, Helena began to embrace Christianity. With her title of Augusta Imperatrix, Helena was given free reign over the imperial treasury. She was tasked with locating relics of Christian tradition.
Between the years 326-328, Helena took a trip to the Holy Places in the Middle East. During her journey, Helena had many churches constructed, including the one at the site of Jesus Christ’s birth–the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem and another at the site of his ascension–Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives.
During this time Jerusalem was still being rebuilt after Titus’ destruction. Around the year 130, Emperor Hadrian had a temple built over the site of Jesus’ death. This temple was believed to be dedicated to Venus. Helena had this temple destroyed and chose a site in this location to be excavated. This led to the discovery of three crosses.
Tradition says Helena brought a woman near death to the crosses. There she had the woman place a hand on all three crosses. Nothing happened when she touched the first two crosses, but when she placed her hand on the third cross she suddenly recovered. Helena declared the third cross to be the True Cross. At this site, Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built.
Theodoret of Cyrus, an influential theologian, wrote that that during her search, Helena also discovered the nails of the crucifixion. She had one of the nails placed in Constantine’s helmet and one in the bridle of his horse to aid him with their miraculous powers. Churches were built at these sites, as well.
Several of the relics believed to be found by St. Helena are located in Cyprus. Among these are parts of Jesus’ tunic, pieces of the holy cross, and pieces of the rope used to tie Jesus to the cross. When Helena returned to Rome from Jerusalem in 327, she brought parts of the True Cross back with her. She stored these in her palace’s chapel. They can still be seen to this day, though her palace has been converted to the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
St. Helena died around 330 with her dearly devoted son by her side. She was then buried in the Mausoleum of Helena outside of Rome. Her sarcophagus can be seen in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum.
St. Helena was renowned for helping not only individuals, but entire communities through her works of charity. She often sought out to help the poor and destitute. She would visit churches and leave them with rich donations. St. Helena was a very devout servant of God, so much so that one would easily believe her to have been a follower of Jesus Christ from birth. Through her influence and work, Christianity continued to spread throughout the known world.