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Reyna Elena, the Virtuous Queen of Constantinople

by Clyde Ericson Nolasco

Today August 18, in the Catholic Church, we commemorate the feast of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine and the Queen of Constantinople. She is also revered in the Eastern Rite every May 21. In Mexico, they remember her every May 3 as they celebrate the day of the Holy Cross.

In the Philippines, this blessed royalty is commonly known as “Reyna Elena,” a Filipinized version of her name. And she’s every young sagala’s dream to be during Santacruzan, the fairest among all partnered by his little Constantino. Every May, the Filipino Catholics honor the Blessed Virgin Mary through the Flores de Mayo (Flower of May), a flower offering to Mary done everyday of the month that concludes with the Santacruzan, a religious pageant procession which reenacts the saint’s finding of the True Cross.

Reyna Elena with her Constantino | Photo from World Mission Magazine

But there’s more to Santa Helena than being a queen and the finder of the Cross.

Mismatched Love

Elena or Flavia Julia Helena, was born in Drepanum in Asia Minor, an Eastern province of the Roman Empire (now known as Bosnia and Serbia.) “Helena” comes from the Greek word “helios” meaning sun or light.

It is believed that she was born to a poor family. As a stabularia – St. Ambrose even described her as “a good-stable maid,” nothing was really known about her family thus concluding that she does not belong to aristocracy.

Moreover, some authors claimed that she worked in an inn where she would eventually meet Constantius Chlorus, a young Roman official who would be the father of her only son Constantine (c. 274). However, because of the difference in their social status, she cannot be taken as a wife but rather as a concubine. For political reasons and as he rose to power as Augustus (a senior emperor), this Roman official repudiated Helena. To make the situation worse, she was exiled far away from her son. Some would say that she stayed in Trier or Rome but no historical records can prove this claim.

Love for his Mother

In the year 306, Constantine became the emperor after the death of his father Augustus Constantius Chlorus.

For his unconditional love for his mother, one of his first actions as an emperor was to summon Helena back into the imperial court. Eventually, she was conferred with the title Augusta, a title for empresses and women of imperial families. Constantine ordered his people to honor his mother. The emperor even had coins minted bearing the image of Helena as Nobilissima Femina, “most honored and noble lady.”

In 318, Constantine renamed Drepanum to Helenopolis in honor of her mother.

The Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helena | Photo from Orthodox Times

God’s Love

It is said that Helena fully embraced Christianity when she reached the age of 63, but historians argue with the certainty of this matter. But many claim that Helena became more passionate with her faith after Constantine's accession to power. Eventually he became known for his great tolerance for Christians especially with the Edict of Milan in 313 prohibiting persecution of those who follow Christianity.

With her newfound faith and empowered by the love of God, Empress Helena performed charitable acts such as caring and giving alms to the needy. She even liberated those who were imprisoned and those who were exiled.

With her wealth and influence, she built Churches in the Roman Empire including the Churches of the Nativity and the Mount of Olives during her pilgrimages to the Holy Land within Israel and Palestine.

Healing Power of Jesus’ Love

But the most notable event in the life of the Empress was her discovery of the True Cross of Jesus. WIth her son’s visions and dreams of this miraculous symbol of Jesus, she herself desired to lay her hands on the Cross.

On the hill of Calvary or Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ death, she ordered a church to be built through the help of St. Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem. During the excavation, they found the three crosses, the nails and the placard that says “INRI,” or “I am the King of the Jews.”

There were a lot of versions on how she found the Cross. Some would even say that Helena learned of the location through a dream, while there are accounts saying that she followed a smoke from a bonfire to the site. There were inconsistencies in the stories on how the true cross was determined among the three but what was common was when a dying woman recovered after touching the third cross. Ergo, she found the True Cross of Jesus.

Saint Helena by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, 1495

Devotion to St. Helena grew over the years across the world. Her faith journey stirred many hearts. May she continue to inspire us to never get tired searching for Jesus.

Let us pray…

Holy and blessed Saint Helena, with the anguish and devotion with which you sought the Cross of Christ, I plead that you give me God’s grace to suffer in patience the labors of this life, so that through them and through your intercession and protection, I will be able to seek and carry the Cross, which God has placed upon me, so that I can serve Him in this life and enjoy His Glory ever after. Amen.

St. Helena, pray for us!

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