St. Helen in Butler's Lives of the Saints

18 August -- the feast of Saint Helena

St Helen was born, so far as can be ascertained, at Drepanum in Bithynia, perhaps the daughter of an inn-keeper. Somewhere about 270 the Roman general Constantius Chlorus met her there and, in spite of her humble birth, married her; but when he was made caesar, he was persuaded to divorce her and marry Theodora, the stepdaughter of the Emperor Maximian. Some years earlier Helen had given birth at Naissus (Nish in Serbia) to Constantine the Great, who had a deep regard and affection for his mother, and afterwards conferred on her the title of "Nobilissima Feminina", changing the name of her birth-place to Helenopolis. "We a reassured", says Alban Butler, "by the unanimous tradition of our English historians that this holy empress was a native of our island." This is so; but the oft-repeated statement of medieval chroniclers that Constantius married Helen, "daughter of Coel of Caercolvin" (Colchester), is without historical foundation. Supported by misunderstood passages in certain panegyrics of Constantine, the legend arose probably from confusion with another Constantine and Helen, namely the British Helen who married Magnus Clemens Maximus, who was emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain from 383 to 388 (the Maxen Wledig of Welsh romance); they had several sons, one of whom was called Constantine (Custennin). This lady received the epithet Luyddog ("of the hosts"), later transferred to the other Helen, and already in the tenth century there is a statement that Constantine was the "son of Constrantius [sic] and Helen Luicdauc, who went out of Britain to seek the Cross so far as Jerusalem, and brought it thence to Constantinople". It has been suggested that the churches dedicated in honour of St Helen in Wales, Cornwall and Devon refer to Helen Luyddog, as the name of the ancient Welsh road, Sarn Elen, perhaps does. There is in another part of the dominions of Maximus another and equally erroneous tradition of St Helen: namely, that she was born at Trier.

Constantius Chlorus lived for fourteen years after the repudiation of St Helen, and when he died in 306 their son Constantine was proclaimed caesar by his troops at York, and eighteen months later emperor. He entered Rome after the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, and by the Edict of Milan early in the following year Christianity was tolerated throughout the empire. It appears from Eusebius that St Helen was converted only at this time, when she was about sixty-three years old (Constantine himself was a catechumen until his death-bed): "She became such a devout servant of God under [her son's] influence that one might believe her to have been a disciple of the Saviour of mankind from her very childhood." Though she was so advanced in years before she knew Christ, her fervour and zeal were such as to make her retrieve the time lost in ignorance; and God prolonged her life many years to edify by her example the Church which her son laboured to exalt by his authority. Rufinus calls her faith and zeal incomparable, and she kindled the same fire in the hearts of the Romans; she assisted in the churches amidst the people in modest and plain attire, and to attend at the divine offices was her greatest delight. She made use of the treasures of the empire in liberal alms, and was the mother of the indigent and distressed. She built numerous churches, and when after his victory over Licinius in 324 Constantine became master of the East, the noble lady went to Palestine to venerate the places made sacred by the Holy presence of our Lord.

After Golgotha and the holy sepulchre had been laid bare by the removal of the terrace and temple of Venus with which the Emperor Hadrian had over-built them, Constantine wrote to St Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, ordering a church to be built, "worthy of the most marvellous place in the world". St Helen, then fourscore years of age, took the charge on herself to see this work executed, desiring at the same time to discover the sacred cross on which our Redeemer died. Eusebius mentions no other motive for her journey but to give thanks to God for His mercies to her family, and to pray for His continued protection; but other writers attribute it to visions and to admonitions in her steep, anti St Paulinus of Nola says that one of its definite objects was to find the holy places. Constantine in his letter to Macarius commissions him to make search for the cross on Mount Calvary. The finding of three crosses in a rock-cistern just to the east of Calvary, and the difficulty in deciding which was the cross of Christ, has been related herein under May 3, on which date the Western church celebrates this discovery, and under St Macarius (March 10). On May 3, too, reference is made to the absence of early information about the finding of the cross and of evidence that directly connects its discovery with the name of St Helen. The first known ascription of it to her is in a sermon of St Ambrose, preached in 395, who remarks that St Helen, when she had discovered the holy cross, "worshipped not the wood, but the King, who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the guarantee of immortality." Several other writers about the same time mention her as playing a principal part in the recovery of the cross, but it is noteworthy that St Jerome, who lived near by at Bethlehem, was not among them.

Whether or not she actually took an active part in the finding of the cross, it is beyond dispute that Helen's last days were spent in Palistine and, says Eusebius "In the sight of all she continually resorted to church, appearing humbly dressed among the praying women; and she adorned the sacred buildings with rich ornaments and decorations, not passing by the chapels of the meanest towns." He reports that she built two basilicas, the Eleona on the Mount of Olives and one at Bethlehem. She was kind and charitable to all, but especially to religious persons; to these she showed such respect as to serve them at table and hold them water to wash their hands; "though empress of the world and mistress of the empire she looked upon herself as servant of the handmaids of Christ". Whilst she travelled over the East she heaped all kinds of favours both on cities and persons, particularly on soldiers, the poor, and those who were condemned to the mines, freeing many from oppression, chains and banishment. The latest coins which, by order of her son, bore her name, Flavia Julia Helena, were minted in 330, which presumably was the year of her death. This took place apparently somewhere in the East, and her body was taken to Rome. St Helen is named in the Roman Martyrology on August 18, on which day her feast is kept in the dioceses of Liverpool, Salford and Brentwood; it is observed universally in the East, but on May 21, with that rather equivocal person, her son Constantine: tile Byzantines refer to them as "the holy, illustrious and great emperors, crowned by God and equal with the Apostles".
Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater, Butler's Lives of the Saints (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1956), vol.3, pp. 346-348.



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