Helen, or Helena, was born around 247 AD, likely a Greek of Drepanum, in the province of Bithyria in Asia Minor. After she died around 330, her son Constantine renamed the city ‘Helenopolis’. Helen was the consort of the future Roman Emperor Constantius Cholorus and the mother of the future Emperor Constantine the Great. Divorced by her husband sometime around 289, who remarried based on his lofty political aspirations, Helena lived quietly with her son until Constantius died and her son was proclaimed Augustus of the Roman Empire. Helena, by then a Christian, was given the title Augusta Imperatrix.
Helen is known within Christian history for two major features; her influence on her son and her Jerusalem pilgrimage and archeological career. As parents, godparents, grandparents, aunties and so on, familiar with the baptism promise to be responsible for seeing that our children are ‘nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community’, we can only guess at the conversations which took place between Helena and her only son. Her faith witness guided Constantine to embrace Jesus as Saviour, aided by a dream or vision which prompted him to fly the Christian standards in battle, ensuring victory. Obviously, he won the battle! And although he immediately declared that Christians and pagans should be allowed to worship freely, that is, free from persecution, it was some time before he proclaimed Christianity as the state religion.
Later in life, in her late 70’s, Helena travelled to Palestine on pilgrimage. Her archeological excavations led to the discovery of fragments of what was allegedly the True Cross, among other relics. Interestingly, Helen is the patron saint of new discoveries and also of difficult marriages, divorced people, converts and archeologists! She, like many of the saints, claims a British connection as well. Helena did not simply place the items she found in holy safe-keeping, she widened her mission to that of builder, and numerous churches in Palestine are attributed to her directives.
When this faith community was established by Archbishop Edwin Lackey he gave the new amalgamated Anglican parish in Orleans the name “St. Helen’s”. For all our fascination with hallowed relics and our appreciation of cathedral structures honouring our sacred stories, with all of our reverence for the Cross, it is the devout witness of the saints, of Helen, which means ‘shining light’, which inspire us in our ongoing journey with our Lord. “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you….While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” John 12: 35
Saint Helen is commemorated on various days according to Christianity’s calendar of the saints. In this parish she is often celebrated on, or close to, Holy Cross Day, September 14. “Grant us grace, O Lord, to follow in her footsteps, in lives of faithfulness, commitment and ministry in Christ’s name. Unlock our minds and hearts and wills to explore the unknown, to be led by your Spirit into new possibilities, perspectives and opportunities… new discoveries. We give thanks for our patron saint and for all who have borne witness to the Gospel and served with passion and gladness, who continue, in the communion of Saints, to rejoice in the Lord, now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.”