(A.D. 328) Helena, so celebrated in the Church for her faith and the virtues of her son Constantine, was born, as is generally believed, at Drepane, in Bithynia, of an obscure family, for it is thought that her father was proprietor of an inn. The Emperor Constance, while only a simple officer, married her. Helena lived with him till the year 292. This prince divorced her, in order to marry the god-daughter of Maximien Hercules. Constance having died in 306, Constantine, his son by Helena, was proclaimed emperor. As soon as this young prince had ascended the imperial throne, he hastened to call his mother to the court. He then bestowed on her the title of August. He likewise bestowed on her estates throughout the whole extent of the empire, allowing her to dispose as she pleased of the imperial treasury.
Helena, like Constantine, was still ignorant of the true faith, till God, after having given the clearest proof of his miraculous preservation of the Church, deigned to call the emperors themselves, and to make Constantine the Great the declared protector of the Christian religion. Maxentius, son of Maximien Hercules, declared war against Constantine, and determined to give him battle at a place two miles distant from Rome. Constantine’s army was inferior in numbers; but the former felt himself inspired to invoke the true God, whom he besought with the most earnest prayers to make himself known to him. This prince had an upright heart, and God heard him. About mid-day, when marching at the head of his troops, he beheld in the heavens a luminous cross, in the centre of which were traced, in characters of fire, these words: “By this sign thou shalt be victorious.” The entire army witnessed this miracle; but no one was so sensibly struck by it as the emperor, who passed the whole day endeavoring to discover what this wonderful apparition signified. During his sleep on the following night, Jesus Christ himself appeared to him with the same sign, and ordered him to make a standard after that model, which he was to carry in all his combats as a safeguard against his enemies. Constantine obeyed, and caused to be made the celebrated banner known under the name of the Labarum. Maxentius was defeated, and the bridge of boats he had thrown across the Tiber breaking down in the retreat, he was drowned in that river.
Constantine, after the overthrow of his enemy, gave thanks to Jesus Christ, and proclaimed him throughout the whole empire.
It was to her son that Helena was indebted for the knowledge of the true religion. She was about sixty-four years of age when she received the light of the Gospel; but her conversion was so perfect that all her virtues were the moot heroic from that happiest moment of her existence. Mistress of the treasures of the empire, loved and respected by a son who, when near her, seemed to forget that he was master of the world, Constantine used every means in his power to anticipate her wishes. The dearest desire of Helena was to cause Christianity to flourish through the whole world. Although advanced in age, God prolonged her years in order that her examples might edify the Church, for the exaltion of which her son exerted all his energies. Her zeal and faith were incomparable, and Saint Gregory tells us that she kindled in the hearts of the Romans the same fire that consumed her soul. She assisted at the divine offices with exemplary assiduity; she decorated the churches with rich furniture and precious vessels; and she extended her munificence even to the chapels of the poorest suburbs.
After the Council of Nicæa, which was held in the year 325, Constantine expended large sums in erecting temples to the true God, and particularly in the Holy Land. Helena charged herself with the execution of this pious design, and set out for Palestine, although she was then eighty years of age.
On her arrival at Jerusalem, she was animated by a longing desire to discover the cross on which Jesus Christ had suffered death. The search was attended with difficulties; for the pagans, in order to destroy the memory of the Redeemer, had cast a great mound of earth on the site of the sepulchre, and, after constructing a platform, erected on it a temple to Venus, thus thinking to keep the Christians from visiting the locality. But nothing could withhold the pious princess from prosecuting the search. She consulted the oldest inhabitants of Jerusalem, who told her that, if she would discover the Lord’s sepulchre, she must also discover the instruments of his death. In fact, it was a custom amongst the Jews to bury along with the body everything that had been used in putting criminals to death. The empress immediately caused the profane temple to be levelled. The earth was removed, and the ground was purified. At length the grotto of the holy sepulchre was discovered, and near the tomb were three crosses, together with the inscription that had been affixed to that of Jesus Christ, and also the nails that had pierced His holy body.
It now became necessary to distinguish the cross on which the Redeemer had died. A lively faith can obtain all things, and Helena, by the advice of Maccarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, caused the three crosses to be brought to a woman who, for a considerable time, had been afflicted with an incurable malady. Each of the three crosses was now applied to her, while prayers were offered to Christ beseeching him to manifest which of them had been moistened with his blood. The empress was present, and the whole city waited anxiously for the result. The two first effected nothing; but when the third was applied, the sick woman was cured instantly, and then rose from her bed. The historian Sozomen assures us that it was applied to the body of a dead man, and that the man was restored to life. Saint Paulinus relates the same. The pious princess was transported with joy when she found herself in possession of a treasure which she preferred to all the riches of the world. She took a portion of the true cross to bring it to her son, and, having enshrined the other portion in a silver case, she placed it in the hands of the Bishop of Jerusalem, in order that it might be venerated in the church which Constantine ordered to be built over the holy sepulchre.
This edifice was constructed with a magnificence suitable to the sanctity of the place. It enclosed within its precincts the holy sepulchre, and extended as far as Mount Calvary. Saint Helena also caused two other churches to be built, one on the spot from which the Redeemer ascended into heaven, and another at Bethlehem, where He was born.
Her piety did not confine itself to the mere magnificence of the edifices; she extended her pious acts over every place through which she passed, comforting the poor with abundant alms, everywhere proving herself a mother to the orphans and afflicted.
Before returning from Palestine, Helena desired to attest to the virgins consecrated to the Lord the esteem in which she held them. She therefore assembled them all together, and provided for them a banquet, at which she ministered with her own hands.
Arriving at Rome, she found that her last hour was fast approaching. When she saw that she was to quit this world soon, she instructed her son how he should govern the empire in accordance with the divine law she then addressed to him and to his little children a most tender farewell; and at length, crowned with merits before God and men, she died, aged eighty years, in the arms of Constantine, who, particularly in his mother’s last moments, proved himself faithful to all the filial duties of love for which he was always distinguished.
The obsequies of the empress were celebrated with the most sumptuous pomp; a mausoleum of bricks was constructed to receive her body. It was built in the shape of a round tower, and in its interior was placed her tomb, which was an urn of porphyry. Constantine erected in the centre of the grand square of Constantinople a cross, together with a statue representing his blessed mother. The mortal remains of Saint Helena now repose under the grand altar of the Church of Saint Mary Major (the greater) at Rome.