Here’s a saint study about St. Helena, complete with lesson ideas and activities.
By Kate Daneluk
St. Helena is one of the most powerful women in history and from a time when women held little political or familial power. Her fervor for the faith drove her forward and changed the world.
About St. Helena
Helena’s life began with some difficulties. There is some debate regarding her place of birth, but she was likely of Greek Heritage and was born in the Roman Empire in the mid 200s. Helena married the ambitious Constantius and gave birth to their son Constantine. Constantius discarded her for a more politically advantageous second marriage, but Constantine remained his heir. Constantius died in 306 and at this time was Emperor of Rome. Constantine inherited the throne and returned his mother to public life, ultimately proclaiming her Augusta, the Empress of Rome.
It was later in life that Helena converted to Christianity and considering her son’s clear devotion to her, it is not surprising that he followed. Constantine had officially ended the persecution of Christians granting religious freedom to his subjects, but his mother’s conversion brought Christianity to the forefront of Roman life. Constantine began to favor the Christian Church and converted himself. Eventually, history would come to label Constantine’s reign as the point when the Roman Empire officially became Christian. Obviously, this is not an overnight transformation and is a bit more complex than that, but Helena and her son are generally given credit for it.
Helena was given unlimited funds to recover precious relics, build churches, and help grow the Christian culture within the Empire. In her late seventies, she undertook quests to the Holy Land and is believed to have found the True Cross. Three were uncovered in her search. A woman with an incurable disease touched each one and was instantly cured by one of them. This was proclaimed to be the True Cross. She is credited with obtaining several other relics, including nails and rope used in the Crucifixion which are still venerated today.
Helena’s zeal for the faith was more than political. Eusebius attests to her lack of personal ambition and strength of genuine piety. “This admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct” (The Life of Constantine, XLV). He goes on to describe the many corporal works of mercy she performed and her devotion to the poor. He points out that her desire to build and appoint churches is for the glory of God, not for political purposes, as she was generous with appointments, treasures, and funds to churches of the smallest, poorest towns, not just the large and important cities.
Looking at Helena’s life, she was an unlikely saint. But her conversion was so sincere and thorough, she was able to change the world. She brought her service of God into every aspect of her life personal, political, economic, etc. She never remarried and instead devoted herself fully to her role as Empress and servant of God. She is a powerful testament that the Christian life is not meant to be compartmentalized, but to thoroughly shape all aspects of our lives and each decision. She died in 330 at the age of 80.
Fun facts about St. Helena:
Feast Day: August 18
St. Helena is the patron saint of:
- new discoveries
- against fire
- against thunder
- Birkirkara, Malta
- difficult marriages
- divorced people
- Diocese of Helena, Montana
- nail smiths
- needle makers
St. Helena in your classroom:
There are various subjects and topics that give an opportunity to learn a bit about and pray to St. Helena:
- History/Social Studies – Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine, persecution of Christians
- Geography – Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Egypt, the Roman Empire
- Literature – royalty, Roman Empire, religious persecution, divorce, mother/son relationships, queen mother
- Religion – Church teaching on divorce, Early Church and the Roman Empire, The history of the King and Queen Mother through salvation history, religious persecution of Christians, relics, corporal works of mercy, servant leadership
- (grades 4 – high school) St. Helena is famous for finding and preserving many key relics, including the true cross. Spend some time as a class learning about relics, the different classes, the doctrine on them, and how they are determined to be genuine. Each student could write a report or give a presentation on a relic, including some associated with St. Helena. Visiting a shrine, chapel, church of cathedral with a relic could make for a good field trip.
- (grades 6-12) Helena’s married life is complicated and she is the patron of divorced people. Church teaching on divorce can be a complicated topic at school as it hits close to home for many students, but it is very important that students have a firm foundation in church teaching on the subject. St. Helena lived a celibate life after her husband divorced her. She is an example that divorce is not a new issue.
- (grades 3 – 12) Salvation history is rich with an ongoing theme of a king who appoints his mother as queen. In the Davidic monarchy, the king’s mother is traditionally queen of the kingdom. Jesus raised his mother to Queen of Heaven and Earth. In Constantine and Helena we find another example of this. Your class can make a timeline chart together showing the various examples of the mother queen throughout the Bible and History.
- (grades 1-4) Read the story of St. Helena’s recovery of the cross. Students can create a play based on the story.
- (grades K-4) Iconography and visual imagery in art. After learning about the life of St. Helena, teach children how to recognize her in art. She is usually depicted with a cross, nails, or with her son Constantine. There are different coloring page options available online.
- (grades 3-12) St. Helena lived her faith in every aspect of her life. In modern society, we are often expected to keep our faith private and reserved for Sundays. After discussing Helena’s life, have students make a list of ways they can more fully live their Christian life. This is a good topic for journaling as well. Older students can write a paper on the topic or on the more difficult subjects of faith in the workplace or in political life.
Kate Daneluk is a former Catholic school teacher, early childhood music teacher, creator of the Making Music, Praying Twice music curriculum, and a homeschooling mother of six.