St. Helena – 1st August

Former Patron Saint of Cockshutt Chapelry

Helena was born at Depranum (modern Trapani) in Bithynia, which Constantine renamed Helenopolis in honour of his mother. The exact date of her birth or details of her family are unknown. It is therefore possible to conclude that they were not members of the aristocracy. She met the future emperor Constantius I Chlorus in 272 CE, and historians suggest that she became his concubine or wife in accordance with Roman law (Lex Julia et Papia Poppaea). Roman nobles could not marry women of lower origins, and so the concubinage hypothesis is widely accepted..

Helena disappeared from the historical records until Constantine became emperor in 306 CE when he was proclaimed Augustus by his troops in York. He fought civil wars against other emperors and led various campaigns against the Franks and Visigoths and others.  The battle of Milvian Bridge was the turning point when Constantine had a vision of the Cross in the Sky and he had it emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers with the words In hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will conquer). The new emperor made Byzantium his capital, giving the city the name New Rome at that time; later, in honour of the emperor, people started to call it Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

Helena went to live at court and Constantine elevated her to Augusta, which means that she was considered an empress and a holy person. Constantine always had great tolerance for Christians, and it is widely believed that Helena’s influence was the reason. He promulgated the Edict of Milan in 313 ending the persecution of Christians that Diocletian had started in 303. He began the construction of many churches and he preferred the empire’s officials to be Christians.  In 325 he convened the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea assembling 318 bishops to refute heresy and establish an agreed statement of Christian belief.  This statement remains an essential statement of the Christian Faith, known as the Nicaean Creed. It was added to the Liturgy as an affirmation of faith in the sixth century.  The opening words Credo in unum Deum, “I believe in one God” have been changed by western Christians to “We believe etc.” and added the word filioque (and the Son) to the procession of the Holy Spirit.  This latter addition was one of the causes of the Great Schism of 1094.

Although many historians claim that his baptism took place only on his deathbed, it is a fact that Constantine raised his children within the Christian faith. The theory is widely accepted that Helena was a Christian from birth, and when she went to live with her son at court, she influenced him to become a Christian According to Eusebius of Caesarea  (a bishop considered the father of church history), her conversion to Christianity followed Constantine becoming emperor. Whatever the truth, we know that Helena was granted access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of the Christian tradition. In addition, she also built some churches and did charitable work, helping the poorest.

In 326 Helena went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to distribute alms and build churches, especially in holy places, such as sites of the Nativity Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. It is in this period that the story for which Helena is best known emerges. The narrative of the discovery of the cross is one of the most important and well-known of Late Antiquity. In Jerusalem, Helena found three crosses, one of which was the cross of Christ and also the nails. It was said that three sick people came, the first touched one of the crosses, the second touched another, but nothing happened until the third person touched the cross of Christ; he was miraculously healed. At the exact location of the discovery, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was built. The construction of the Church of the Nativity is also attributed to her; she died at the age of 80, c. 328.

St. Helena Icon, by Aidan Hart

Helena is venerated as a saint throughout Christendom along with her son Constantine on May 21st. The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates them as Equal to the Apostles and the Holy Cross is venerated on the third Sunday of Great Lent and again on Aug. 1st. Now she is regarded as the patron of archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people and empresses.  Saint Helena Island is named after her.

The medieval chapel at Cockshutt was dedicated her and the name of the Meer within the parish Croesmere (the mere of the Cross) could be connected.  This connection has been lost sometime after the Reformation and now the church at Cockshutt is dedicated to St.Simon and St. Jude.  The image of Saint Helena can still be seen in a window on the right hand side of the sanctuary of Cockshutt Church, the traditional position of a patron saint.

A fragment of the True Cross was given to King Charles III by Pope Francis and it was incorporated into the processional cross used at the Coronation. The screen used at the Anointing during the service was designed by Aidan Hart, an Orthodox iconographer who is based in Shrewsbury.  He also painted this Icon of Saint Helena on the wall of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea in Shrewsbury.

Christopher Jobson

The feature image for this post is “St. Elena”, Wikicommons (P.D.)

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