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Saint Helena

Our island has her name

I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in!{a}

St Helena Island is named after a Christian saint, but why?

Who was Saint Helena?

Saint Helena

Stained-glass window in Colchester
Stained-glass window in Colchester{1}
Finding the cross
‘Finding the cross’

Saint Helena stamp
The Vision of Saint Helena:
The Vision of Saint Helena
The Vision of Saint Helena

Saint Helena or Saint Helen Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, c.250 - c.330, was the wife of the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. According to (Christian) tradition she made a pilgrimage to Syria Palestina, during which she discovered the True Cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. As a result she is revered as a saint by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Lutheran churches.

Where she was born is uncertain. It is said that Helena was a native of Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Her son Constantine renamed the city ‘Helenopolis’ after her death around 330, which suggests that at least he believed she was born there. Her date of birth is also uncertain. Historian Eusebius of Caesarea writes that she was 80 years old on her return from Palestine, and since that journey is understood to have occurred in 326-28, she was probably born around 250ad. Sources written after Constantine’s proclamation as emperor gloss over or ignore her background, suggesting she was not of noble birth.

Her precise relationship to Constantius Chlorus is also unclear. While some sources describe her as his ‘wife’, others suggest she was his mistress or common-law wife and that they never formally married.

After her son Constantine became emperor he appointed Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, giving her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. In 326-28 Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. Jerusalem was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by Emperor Hadrian, who had built a temple over the claimed site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary.

The story goes that Helena ordered the temple torn down and began excavating, which led to the recovery of three different crosses. Helena had a woman who was near death brought from the city; when the woman touched the first and second crosses her condition did not change, but when she touched the third cross she suddenly recovered. Thus Helena declared this to be the True Cross of Jesus.

Some stories further claim that Helena also found the nails of the crucifixion, and that - to use their miraculous power to aid her son - Helena had one placed in Constantine’s helmet and another in the bridle of his horse.

It should be mentioned that, prior to 337 it was claimed in Jerusalem that Christ’s cross had been found during the building of Constantine’s church on Golgotha.

She is sometimes known as Helen of Constantinople to distinguish her from others with similar names. She is also patron saint of archaeologists, for obvious reasons.

It became practice in medieval times for the Church to sell fragments of the True Cross. During the Reformation it was estimated by John Calvin that if all the supposed-fragments were collected together there would be enough wood to construct a large ship. Roman Catholic theologians responded with the claim that the blood of Christ gave to the True Cross a kind of material indestructibility, so that it could be divided indefinitely without being diminished.

Feast day of Saint Helena

Her feast day varies according to which church you follow:

Other information

St. Helena & The Cross church is dedicated to her.

You can learn more about her on the Wikipedia, including how she is said to be responsible for the introduction of cats to Cyprus and how British historians once claimed that Helena was a daughter of the King of Britain.

And why is our island named after her?

The facts of our island’s discovery are in dispute… as is the role of Saint Helena, whose name we possess.

da Nova stamp
da Nova

Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21st May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova (sometimes, incorrectly, written ‘João da Nova Castella’), sailing in the service of the King of Portugal. Anchoring in what is now James Bay, it is said that he named it ‘Santa Helena’ after St Helena of Constantinople, whose Saint’s Day falls on 21st May. However, there are a number of problems with this story. For a start, da Nova would have been a Catholic, and they celebrate St Helena’s Saints Day on 18th August, not 21st May. Protestants celebrate Saint Helena on 21st May, but they hadn’t even been invented in 1502…

Some have disputed that da Nova actually discovered it, but a relatively contemporary record has recently been found - by Luis de Figuerido Falcão, Secretary of the Portuguese Government - confirming that it was indeed da Nova that discovered St Helena. Unfortunately, Falcão, does not give a date for the discovery and various theories exist. Please read our page Discovery of St Helena to learn more. (For the record, we believe the most probable date for St Helena’s discovery is actually 3rd May 1502.)

Despite this, the official history taught on St Helena and generally accepted on the island is that St Helena was discovered by João da Nova on 21st May 1502 and named St Helena, and hence we celebrate our National Day every year on 21st May and celebrated our Quincentenary on 21st May 2002.

Any place that celebrates its discovery on a date when it wasn’t discovered has got to be worth further investigation…{c}

Discovery Titbits

Read More

Article: Saint Helena and the True Cross

This ‘Faith Matters’ article was published on 13th September 2012 by Fr. Fred George, a priest in the Anglican Church of Saint Helena.{2}

The Eternal City in the Autumn

Tomorrow is Friday 14th September, Holy Cross Day so appropriately remembered on a Friday this year. It marks the day when the wood of the Holy Cross was first displayed in Jerusalem.

The pilgrim to Rome expects to visit the seven great churches. Saint Peter’s of course, then there is Saint John’s Lateran, Saint Lawrence’s just outside the walls of the old city, Saint Sebastion’s, Saint Stephen’s, Saint Paul’s, also outside the walls of the old city and finally Holy Cross in Jerusalem, or Santa Croce in Gerusalemme as it is rendered in Italian. Tomorrow is Holy Cross Day, a good opportunity to consider the importance of the Holy Cross to us. The first church of Santa Croce, little of which survives today, was built within the palace that was constructed for Saint Helena shortly after the year 326. It was here that the part of the Cross of Christ which was brought to Rome was housed. The building was rebuilt in the middle of the twelfth century and rebuilt again in the early eighteenth century. Naturally the decorations of the church relate to the Holy Cross, He who died on it, and how the Cross was found by the Emperor Constantine’s mother.

Below the main church is the Chapel of Saint Helena where there are beautiful mosaics about the story of our patron saint. They were made in the fifteenth century by Melozzo da Forli. This chapel is, paradoxically, one of the oldest parts of the great church or basilica. The newest part was built as recently as 1930 and is chapel of the relics. Here, in reliquaries, are the remaining portions of the Cross of Calvary. Actually only half of the cross was taken to Rome and soon small pieces were being given away to churches all over Europe and subsequently, all over the world.

A few years ago Monsignor McPartland very kindly gave a tiny fragment of the True Cross to the Diocese of Saint Helena. It is kept in a relatively simple brass reliquary in Arabia, the Bishop’s Chapel at Bishopsholme. Each year on Good Friday it is taken to the Cathedral and it is taken to Saint Helena and the Cross on Saint Helena Day. Can we be sure these tiny fragments really are parts of the cross on which Jesus died? No, there is no way of proving it. But we can be sure that it is part of that relic in Santa Croce and dates back over a thousand years. More importantly we know it is part of that wood which millions of Christians over many hundreds of years have used in their devotions reminding them of Jesus’ death for us on the Cross. God loved the World so much that he gave his only begotten Son.


{a} Anon, from the song ‘When the saints go marching in{b} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){c} Social Media User{3}


{1} Saint Helena is Colchester’s patron saint.{2} @@RepDis@@{3} Posted on Social Media and used with the poster’s permission but they wish to remain anonymous.