St Helen’s name is inextricably linked with that of her son’s St Constantine. In fact, it is hard to find an icon, a church, or a Byzantine drachma that they do not appear together. Apparently the son had great reverence for his mother because once he became Emperor of the Roman Empire he proclaimed her, then 70 years old, Empress.
But Helen did not start life as an empress; she was the simple daughter of a roadside innkeeper in a small village in the province of Bithynia in the mid 3rd century later renamed Helenopolis in honor of his mother. She was lucky enough to marry a Roman officer Constantinus with a promising military career. She gave birth to her only child, Constantine, in a town in present day Yugoslavia. Constantinus with ambitions for both himself and his son, had him sent to the royal court in Nikomedia. Helen was left for several years without her child; Constantinus driven with more ambition, divorced Helen to marry the daughter of a Roman emperor. Separated from her son and estranged from her husband, Helen lived through three decades of lonely obscurity.
It was not until the last third of her life that she accomplished what we know her for. Once declared Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Helen became in charge of the royal coffers. Actively involved in both civic and religious affairs, Helen played the game of politics shrewdly. Although the history books state Constantine converted to Christianity first, most probably it was Helen who held the faith first and passed it on to him.
In 326, when she was close to 80 years old, she made her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, thus instituting the custom of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She is merited with discovering the location of the true Cross and erecting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to commemorate the place of Christ’s Holy Crucifixion. In fact, St. Helen was responsible for giving a Byzantine facelift to the Old City, funding and founding over 365 churches and monasteries, the majority still intact today, all over the Holy Land. Once the Holy Cross was uncovered, masses of people flooded the place to venerate it. Patriarch Sophronios at that time to accommodate the crowds, stood on a pulpit, raised the Cross over his head. At this sight, the faithful shouted “Kyrieleison”. This event came to be commemorated as the Elevation of the Cross that is celebrated on September 14th.
Helen returned to Constantinopole from Jerusalem in glory bearing relics, objects of spiritual value and even plants that had been found growing around the place of Christ’s Cross. The famous “basiliko” or “king’s plant” she planted in pots she filled with other flowering plants from the Holy Land so that the neighborhood they were kept was known as “Glastria” or the place of the pots. From this practice it is common to find basil plants in pots in many Orthodox churches. Helen died shortly after completing her pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the ripe old age of 80.
Down through eternity, St. Helen will forever be remembered for her son, her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, whose architecture bears her Byzantine stamp to this day, and the discovery of the True Cross. As Eva Catafygiotu Topping writes in her book “Saints and Sisterhood,” “St Helen Equal to the Apostles established a tradition of personal piety and activism, of philanthropy and zeal for the church which inspired Byzantine empresses until the fall of Constantinopole a millennium later”.