Saint Helena-Empress And Holy Archeologist
Article by Mike Church
Saint Helena is very well known as the mother of Emperor Constantin and for her discovery of The True Cross and Holy Sepulcher. Digging deep into her story paints a picture of an archeologist who is every bit was worthy of that title as the renowned Howard Carter, discover of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
There is no more loved or remembered royal woman among the saints than Saint Helena; one of the proofs of this are the numerous iterations of her name we still use today: Helen, Eleanor, Ellen, Eileen and Elaine. The Slaves to the Immaculate Heart describe her thus.
Saint Helena was an empress and the mother of Constantine the Great. She became a Christian in 313. It was Saint Helena who discovered the Holy Sepulcher and the True Cross in Jerusalem in 326, four years before she died. She built churches on Mount Calvary, at Bethlehem and in the little town of Fostat in Egypt where the Holy Family went in flight when Jesus was a Child.
In Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, the Roman Bishop and historian paints this picture of our saint.
“Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment and others she restored from exile. While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds, she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting His Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.”
Saint Helena-Catholicism’s First Archeologist
The story of St. Helena discovering the True Cross and Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem are well known but no so the exact details. These details include the accounts that pagan emperors after Christ wanted to snuff out the growing veneration of the Holy sites of the Passion of Our Lord so they had the sites covered with rubble and then had temples to pagan gods erected over them, one to Jupiter and one to Venus. In dreams, Saint Helena was told that the True Cross was under the temple of Venus and that the site of Christ’s burial was under the temple of Jupiter. A.R. Birley relates the story from a contemporary source.
[In] (A.D. 397), a prominent churchman, Rufinus of Aquileia, returned to Italy after nearly twenty years on the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem. In this Ecclesiastical History there is a full scale account of Helena’s discovery. He dates her journey to the time of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Inspired by divine visions she came to Jerusalem and made enquiries from the inhabitants about the site of the Crucifixion. It was, she learned, under the pagan temple of Venus, which she ordered to be demolished. When the three crosses were excavated, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, proposed a sure means of confirming which was the True one. They were taken to the bedside of a distinguished lady who was dangerously ill. As the bishop prayed for a revelation, the touch of the True Cross immediately cured her. Helena at once ordered the construction of a magnificent basilica above the spot where the cross had been found. Rufinus also knows the story of the nails, and adds that a piece of the cross itself was sent to Constantine at Constantinople.
Thus the discovery of the Cross and sepulcher required excavations every bit as laborious and painstaking as those undertaken by modern archeologists like the famous Howard Carter in his digging and discovering of the tomb of the 18th dynasty’s King Tutankhamun.
The Odyssey of The Holy relics of St. Helena
They were then entrusted to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and installed in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles.
St. Helena died circa 328 in Nicomedia (present-day Turkey). Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. Tradition holds that her relics were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese of Reims where they remained until the French Revolution. There are literally thousands of accounts of the movement of St. Helena’s relics that all refer, identically.. See e.g. Catholic Encyclopedia.
as recorded by the monk Altmann in his “Translatio”.
Yet, I can find no English translation of a Translatio by a monk named Altmann and here the story takes a strange turn: exactly where are the relics of Saint Helena and how did they get there!? They are in a French Eglise, Church, called San Leu Saint Gilles and were brought there by the descendants, wait for it, of the Knights Templar!
As history tells it, in 840 a monk from Hautvillers, France returned from a trip to Rome with a surprising souvenir. He admitted he had broken into St. Helena’s tomb and stolen part of her body while he was there. Instead of ordering its return, the pope allowed the relic to stay in France since the item itself hadn’t protested the theft by miraculously stopping it (as other relics reportedly had).
The remaining relics of St. Helena stayed in the monastery until the French Revolution broke out. The monastery was destroyed but the cellarer was able to hide the relics until they could be safely transported to Paris for public veneration again. They were then entrusted to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and installed in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles. These days, most Catholics in Paris have forgotten about the relics but they continue to be venerated by the Russian Orthodox community, hence the Orthodox cross and icons surrounding the reliquary.
To preserve the relics a monk hid them in a wine cellar and they were then entrusted to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and installed in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris where they remain today!