Flavia Iulia Helena is one of the few early saints that really existed. She must have been an energetic lady, and this into high age. She shared the Roman Emperors' penchant for building representative stone piles and went on a spending spree on churches. According to legend, she was the first archaeologists and an avid collector of assorted bric-a-brac.
Saint Helena was born around 250 in Drepanon, Turkey, as daughter of a tavern keeper. She later joined the family business until she married a minor Roman officer with whom she had a son by the name of Constantine. Her husband Constantius Chlorus soon divorced her to marry the stepdaughter of Emperor Maximian in view of advancing his career. He was promptly adopted by Emperor Maximian and made Caesar as one of the tetrarchs of the realm.
After Constantius Chlorus’ untimely death, Constantine took over from his father as Caesar in the west of the empire. He was proclaimed Augustus by his troops in 306 in York. Returning to his official residence in Trier, he invited his mother to join him and proclaimed her Augusta. From tavern wench to Empress, the Roman dream had once more come true.
At some point in her life, Helena had converted to Christianity. From the moment of becoming Empress, she embarked on a major building program spending all the money she had never had. Unlike members of the imperial family before her, she planned and built Christian churches. The most famous ones we still see on television at least once a year. They are the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. But she planned, built, donated, or instigated churches wherever the arm of the Empire reached.
Saint Eusebius Bishop of Caesarea, a contemporary of the Empress, told in his writings that she traveled from Trier to Palestine at the age of 76. She died in Nicomedia, Turkey, probably in 329. As no coins with her image are known from a later date, this has to be assumed correct. If you now think that her real life was colorful enough, then you’ll enjoy the legend even more.
Legend had her doing excavation work under the temple of Aphrodite erected by Emperor Hadrian over Golgotha and the Sepulcher. She was credited with finding the Sepulcher and the wood of the true cross. By the time she was leaving Palestine by ship, she had mysteriously acquired the nails as well, and the mummified bodies of the three Magi.
For reasons unknown, she then went for a holiday on Cyprus before finally landing in Italy. From Italy, her cavalcade went northwards by land, all the while dropping bits and pieces of the true cross at various churches. By the time she arrived in Basel, she had also gathered up 11,000 virgins. Gallivanting on northwards while shedding nails, she reached Cologne without the virgins which had somehow disappeared into the landscape, but still in possession of the three Magi which she dropped off there.
Church history, as opposed to Church legend, puts the remains of the Magi into the family hoard of the Imperial family until donated to Bishop Eustorgius and placed in the cathedral at Milan. Emperor Barbarossa had them conveyed to the cathedral in Cologne where they remain to this day. Saint Helena is, again according to church history, buried in Rome in the church of Santa Maria In Ara Coeli.