Saint Helen, Empress
During her lifetime, Helen was the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire and perhaps the entire world. Yet, today, people know little about her. Remembered today as the finder of the true cross, Helen was revered in her lifetime for her Church-building and charitable activities. Born of pagan parents in 255 A.D. in Drepanum, an ancient city in present day Turkey, Helen became an innkeeper. She married Constantius Chlorus, a Roman general who later cast her aside for political reasons. From this relationship her son, who would become Emperor Constantine I, was born.
Helen was baptized a Christian at age 63, and practiced her religion faithfully. Dressing simply, she slipped into Mass in Rome among the crowds, helped at the convent on Mount Sion and performed great works of charity for the poor with her personal funds. Her life was not one of glamour and glory, but one for which God had chosen her. Helen, “Empress of the World” and “Mistress of the Empire,” looked upon herself as “servant of the handmaids of Christ.”
In her glorification of God, Helen exercised great influence on her son’s church-building campaign. While excavating for the building of a basilica on the summit of Golgotha which Helen was supervising, she is credited with identifying the true cross of Christ. The relics of the true cross that are venerated everywhere in Christendom today are traditionally associated with Helen.
Helen died in Nicomedia in 333 A.D. Her popularity is attested to by the numerous Byzantine icons, paintings, sculptures and mosaics. Some depict Saint Helen, holding the true cross, distributing alms to the needy or holding a replica of a basilica in her hands. Even greater indications of her appeal are the numerous churches dedicated to her and the countless girls baptized with her name.