St. Helena and The Legend of The True Cross

A panel of St. Helena with the True Cross, located in Washington DC, United States | 1495 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a legend unlike any other. It all started with a young servant girl named Flavia Julia Helena.1 Born in 248 C.E. in Bithynia, a province of the Roman Empire, Helena was no different from anyone else, until the day that she caught the eye of the Roman emperor Constantius I Chlorus with her beauty.2

They married, had a son in the year 272 who, if you have ever learned anything about Roman history, you will probably know. Their son was the one and only Constantine. Constantine became one of the greatest Roman emperors. One of the things he is known for is the Edict of Milan, issued in the year 313.3 The Edict of Milan allowed for Christianity to be a freely practiced religion. It was at this time that Helena most likely converted to Christianity.4

St. Helena with Judas and her servants discovering the Holy Sepulchre and the True Cross | 1460 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the year 324, Constantine sent Helena on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands in search of the “Holy Sepulcher” and “The True Cross.” The “Holy Sepulcher” is the location of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while “The True Cross” is the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.5 On this pilgrimage, it was said that Helena “followed in the footsteps of Jesus,” by performing many acts of kindness and good works, such as giving money, food, and clothing to the poor, and also helping churches with funds as well as their other needs.6 After weeks of traveling, they finally made it to Jerusalem. With the help Judas Cyriancus, a man selected at random and forced against his will to help, Helena was able to get closer than she ever had to finding “The True Cross.”7 This is where the story diverges. Although some believe a commoner from a nearby town led Helena to “The True Cross,”others believe that it was Judas Cyriancus.

They continued their search for days, when their prayers were finally answered. Helena said it was then, “With sweet smelling dust and a flash of lighting pointed to the place where,” she instructed Judas to started digging.8 Finally, they uncovered three crosses, one thought to belong to Jesus Christ, and the others belonging to the two thieves that died alongside Him. To test and see which one of these crosses truly belonged to Jesus Christ, they searched for a leper at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Once one was found, they returned back to the site of Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. The leper was instructed to touch each of the crosses one by one. He touched the first one and nothing happened. He touched the second one and still nothing happened. Finally, when he touched the third and final cross, the leper was instantly healed.9 It was this cross that healed the leper, and for that reason it is known as the “The True Cross.”

Relic of the True Cross, located in St. Joseph Catholic Church (Detroit, MI) |  November 2013 │ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The cross was then carried back to Constantinople, while part of the cross was placed in the hands of the bishop of Jerusalem.10 As the years passed, fragments of “The True Cross” were placed in the care of many Catholic churches around the world for all to admire. Although we may never know whether the cross they found and distributed was “The True Cross,” like all legends, in the end it is up to us whether to believe the account or not.

  1. Dictionary of World Biography, 2016 s.v. “Helena, St.”
  2. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  3. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  4. Dictionary of World Biography, 2016 s.v. “Helena, St.”
  5. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003 s.v. “Helena, St,” by J. H. Geiger.
  6. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  7. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  8. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  9. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  10. Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations, 2011, s.v. “Elevation of the True Cross (September 14),” by J. Gordon Melton.
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39 Comments

  • I learned a lot from this article. I have heard of St. Helena but I did not know her whole story, or that she was the mother of Constantine. It is interesting to learn about her journey to find the “True Cross” and how she followed Jesus’ footsteps. What really struck me was how the found the “True Cross.” Overall, this is a very well written and informative article and I really enjoyed reading it.

  • I hadn’t heard of this story so I appreciate this article. Though a bit too short, I think, it conveys St. Helena’s mission once she decided her aim and what the goal of the pilgrimage was. It is interesting to read how the cross cured the leper. The story might all be made-up or legit, but either way it was a short and nice read.

  • This article does a good job telling the story of St. Helena’s quest. Strangely, I have never heard this story and have never heard of St. Helena either. While the story could have used some intermediary transitions to help it flow better, the author used good plot points and background knowledge to tell the story. All the same, it would have been interesting to see the struggle for myself. No doubt, she would have been conflicting with her faith as she spends years of her life chasing something lost 200 years before her. I could hardly imagine.

  • This article started off choppy with seemingly poor sentence structures, but definitely resolved itself after the first paragraph. However, this story is really hard to believe factually because after around 300 years of Jesus’ death, it would be common sense that either some christian person or group would take it, or natural causes would erode most, if not all, of the three crosses. However, even if this is the true tale with no falsehoods or not, it turned out to be a good article.

  • I have heard of the saint named Helena, I have even been to a church that was named after her, however I never had done any research as to who she was and why she was canonized. I was not at all expecting to learn that she was the mother of Constantine. I also found it interesting that she was the one who discovered what is believed to be Christ’s cross. I had heard of the relic fragments, but I had not done much research on who had discovered it, or the story behind it. I am glad to read this article. I killed two birds with one stone. I got some background on a saint as well as the background of a holy relic.

  • I had no idea St. Helena’s last name was Helena. I also had no idea she was a mother to the son of a Roman emperor. LET ALONE CONSTANTINE! I was surprised that he sent his mother on such a long pilgrimage. Interesting how the story different about who led Helena to the cross. I liked the story of how she discovered which cross was the True Cross.

  • In my opinion, I think the cross should have been left where they found it, it just seems disrespectful. I’ve never heard of St. Helena, or the “True Cross” but this article did a fine job of explaining her travels upon her sons request to find the “True Cross”. From reading this article, I learned about Constantine’s Mother who loved him so much that she traveled the same path Jesus traveled to fulfill her sons request.

  • Although I am very religious I had never heard of this story. From the looks and research of it, I believe St.Helena was a very kind and humble person. She loved to help others just like Jesus Christ himself. I do believe that the cross they came across is the “true cross.” I would very much like to see this cross in person to see the beauty of it.

  • I am not a person of religion so for myself to read this article on a woman who went through a religious pilgrimage is inspiring. Helena did not have “follow in Jesus’ footsteps” nor to give out kindness in order to search for the “true cross”. This article makes me want to read more about her in general, not just of this journey. This article is written quite nicely.

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