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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55 Responses

  1. I have seen the fictional and televised on the scientific discovery in finding the supposedly the True Cross (Cross of Jesus). I have heard of Constantine in World History as a famous Roman emperor. We didn’t get into in-depth on the parentage of rulers. This story was very interesting with the faith-based discovery of the True Cross while using the Bible reading to identify the healing powers of the True Cross

  2. I had never actually heard the story of St. Helena, although it was a very good one. This story is good one because of the faith she had to continue and search for the cross. While there isn’t much information on to whether it was the true cross or not. The story still stands to be an important one for Catholics, not because of any historical truth but because of the story of hope and faith.

  3. If you want to feel the presence of the Lord, just visit the Basilica of the “Holy Cross in Jerusalem” in Rome. What a sensation in a unique timeless frame when you see the true cross, the thorns of the crown , an 6 to 8 inch primitive nail and the plaque on which INRI is written in 3 languages..Praise the Lord..
    Witnessed by a n engineering scholar

  4. I have never heard of a legend such as this one, and even more, there was a miracle performed along with the discovery of the cross.I am always interested in hearing about others trying to be the true reflection of Jesus and a the end they have a miracle at the end. Due to there being three and to my understanding in the location of Christ the idea will prolong. I wonder how intact those crosses were?But that is not the point, the message is that a saint named St. Helena had found the crosses out of her works and others.

  5. St. Helena sounded familiar but to me she was not necessarily taught so this was a new read for me, this was interesting because Constantine is well known but I did not know the legend of his mother. At this time in history Christianity was fairly a new thing for many people because it was not allowed before and for Constantine to go and try to find the cross and all of its divinity is ironic.

  6. I knew about the legend of the holy grail (the cup that Jesus used during the Last Supper) and even the veil of Veronica (a veil that she used to wipe Jesus’ face, during his walk to Calvary, that is said to have Jesus’ face), but I do not think I have ever heard of the true cross. The story of St. Helena is a really unique and interesting one that I feel ashamed to say had never heard before. I really enjoy learning about certain miracles/saints in the Catholic Church, St. Helena is someone new that I am glad I took the time to read about. Fantastic article!

  7. The Catholic faith surprises me every day with all the angels and saints and what it means to be Catholic. In my many years of practicing and familiarizing myself more with the faith, I had never heard of St. Helena. Her story is so fascinating because it was her son that sent her on a pilgrimage. She experienced the “True Cross” on her pilgrimage that Jesus walked on. She walked in His footsteps. There’s a saying in the Catholic faith that states: “We are all called to be saints. What separates us from the saints is that the saints are sinners that kept trying.” St. Helena walked the journey that we are called to walk with Jesus. We all need a push in our faith in order to truly be His disciple. This article was well written and gave me an insight on a new saint.

  8. This article was quite interesting because it answered my questions such as how the legend occurred and what the “The true Cross”, is. As I am catholic, in my church they would always admire Helena and Judas because they thought that no matter who the commoner was that led them to the true cross, they would show and express about it as it being a legend fair. I have never really knew what they meant by what they had said, but this article explains more such as putting out the characteristics. For example, Helena was a humble person so much like Jesus that helps understand how the true cross came to be known.

  9. I remember learning about St. Helena in middle school and then her son Constantine in high school. Both are rather important figures in our Catholic history. I am amazed that a Roman emperor found God and was the reason Christianity was spread around Rome. The Journey of St. Helena to find the True Cross is very powerful. She was determined and had faith which paid off in the end.

  10. Noah,

    Natural causes would not necessarily erode the crosses. My husband and I visited a viking museum in Norway two years ago that had ships that had been dated from a thousand years ago extremely well preserved. These ships were excavated only 120 years previously. It is possible that some early Christians could have taken it, but Christianity really didn’t become a movement until Constantine. Most Jewish people at the time and especially during Jesus’s crucifixion did not think he was anything special, so why would they bother to dig up his cross?

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