Late vocation: The 80-year-old woman who discovered the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

The contemporary historian Eusebius recorded that Helena converted to Christianity around 312, after her emperor son, inspired by a flaming cross, had destroyed his rivals at the Milvian Bridge. She became celebrated for her charity to the poor and to prisoners.

Helena was almost 80, however, when, in 327-8, she made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had been desecrated in 130 by the Emperor Hadrian, who had built a pagan temple on the supposed site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary.

Helena ordered its demolition, and then selected a spot close by to start digging for relics.

Three crosses were found, and the true one identified when a sick woman was cured after touching it. Nails and a tunic were also discovered.

While in the Holy Land, Helena supervised work on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and on the Church of the Mount of Olives.

She died soon after her return to Rome, and was buried on the Via Labicana.
Her remains are now in the Vatican Museum.

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