Helena Augusta (248?-328?) forged a new path for women in the role of Christian empress and is credited with discovering the True Cross of Jesus. She was also the mother of Constantine, the emperor who reimagined the Roman Empire under a Christian rule.
Helena’s leadership became the standard for Christian women. The role of empress she and Constantine created for her allowed her more influence and power than women of the court ever held before, and influenced the way women held authority for generations after her. 
Helena has been widely celebrated as the one who discovered the true cross of Christ, a miracle that has given her the status of a saint in the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. Scholars generally agree that this discovery is more legend than truth, however, the story was so impactful in late antiquity that it is impossible to separate her from such an influential tradition.
Her political influence and role as a model for Christian piety and its influence on the new Christian empire cannot be understated. She was sent as a diplomat to the (newly conquered) Eastern part of the empire to be the face of Constantine’s Christianization and to appease any discord that was arising as a result. Her face was minted on coins which represented her status as a pillar of strength and authority in the new Christian empire.
She oversaw the building of three churches and regularly demonstrated a life of Christian piety. She became an example to those unfamiliar with Christianity on how to live a dedicated Christian life. She released imprisoned and enslaved Christians, gave money to the poor, forbid pagan sacrifices, ended gladiatorial contests, enacted laws against immorality and ritual prostitution and abolished crucifixion.
Likely beginning life as a prostitute herself, she rose from the rank of unmarried mother and concubine of a soldier-turned-emperor, into a place of authority when her son took over his father’s rule. 
Although we don’t know nearly as much as we should fo ra woman so prominent, the glimpses we do get of her life are fascinating and well worth further study.
Have you heard of St. Helena before?
- Leanne M. Dzubinski & Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History. (Grand Rapids, MI 2021). 69.
- Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes. Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 115.
- Leanne M. Dzubinski & Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church. 70.
- Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes. Christian Women in the Patristic World. 111.