St. Helena rose from humble station (St. Ambrose described her as a “good stable maid”) to become empress of the western world. She was born the third century in the town of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Her modesty and virtue attracted the attention of a young Roman official, Constantius Chlorus, who took her as his wife in spite of the difference in their social status. She accompanied Constantius to the Balkans, and sometime after the year 270, gave birth to her only son, Constantine.
Constantius was an up and comer in the Roman military eventually rising to the ruling tetrarchy composed of himself, Diocletian and Maximian, who ruled as co-emperors.
Probably to increase his standing in the ruling class, Constantius left Helena to marry the daughter of Maximian. Helena was removed from the court while her son rose in stature and importance.
In 306, Constantius became the senior emperor and was conferred the title of Augustus. Young Constantine accompanied his father to Britain to fight the Picts, and in what is now the town of York, Constantius died.
Constantine was proclaimed emperor by the army and one of his first actions was to recall his beloved mother to the court. To cement her position, he bestowed the title of Augusta upon her. Shortly after her return and recognition, Helena converted to Christianity.
Her memories of her humble past and the teachings of her new religion influenced her to use the power of her important position to care for the poor, liberate prisoners and free those sent to the mines or into exile. His mother’s good example probably contributed to Constantine issuing the Edict of Milan in 313, which gave Christians the freedom of worship after centuries of persecution. During the celebrations that followed, it was said that Helena dressed in modest clothing in order to join the crowds, and that she fed the poor with her own hands
In 326, there was a crisis in the royal family. Constantine ordered the execution of his son Crispus and shortly after that of his second wife, Fausta. There is some speculation that the two were “overly friendly.” Helena is said to have taken the whole situation very badly (some say Helena denounced Fausta after the death of her beloved grandson).
Perhaps to absent herself from intrigues of the court or to atone for all the unpleasantness in the air, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There, she caused churches to be built on the reputed sites of Christ’s Nativity (in Bethlehem) and Ascension (near Jerusalem). The work was overseen by Helena, who hoped to discover the relics of Christ’s Passion. Her faith was rewarded when the True Cross was discovered. The identity of the cross was confirmed when a dead man laid on the wood was miraculously restored to life. The three nails from the crucifixion were given by Helena to Constantine. One was cast into the Iron Crown, as a reminder that there is not rule which should not be subject to God. The crown currently rests in the Cathedral of Monza, in Italy.
The other precious relics of the crucifixion are today preserved in the Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), which is roughly in the location of Helena’s palace.
Helena died in the year 329 in an unknown location. Constantine had her body brought back to Rome; she was buried in mausoleum named for her on the Via Labicana. Her porphyry sarcophagus, which was moved to the Lateran in the eleventh century, can now be seen in the Vatican Museums.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini