Bless Thou! Thou Art Translated!
Or How the Relics of St. Helena Wound Up in an Obscure Crypt in Paris
92 Rue St-Denis, 75001; 12pm-7:30pm Monday-Saturday, 9am-12pm Sunday
Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles is just a small parish church. It sits on a grimy street in Les Halles, uncomfortably sandwiched between dozens of porno shops and places to buy knock-offs. It’s not particularly grand but it is old. The little shield sign that designates historic places in Paris only confirms that the church is, in fact, as old as it looks. You won’t find it listed in Frommers, or Lonely Planet, or the Blue Guide or even Secret Paris.
I showed up by chance one weekday morning after visiting St. Eustace. During my visit the morning clouds turned into a full-on downpour and of course my umbrella was back at the apartment. I saw the towers of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles and thought I’d give it a shot.
It was dark and locked. I considered running down the street to a cafe and waiting out the rain with bad coffee but before I could turn away, a man stopped me. I thought he was going to ask for money but instead he said, “You’re here to see the relics?”
I was shocked, my research hadn’t turned up any mention of relics here. But being “here to see the relics” pretty much describes most vacations for me. Of course I said yes.
He pulled out a ring of keys, unlocked the front door and led me to a little side door under the altar.
“Here is the crypt.”
And just like that he left. I found myself alone with the relics of not just any old martyr from antiquity, but of St. Helena. How did a Roman Empress wind up here?
If you’re interested in relics, you’re probably well aware of St. Helena, the woman credited with spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Though she raised her only child, Constantine the Great, at the court of the notorious martyr-maker, Diocletian, she converted to Christianity at the age of 60. In her 70s she traveled to the Holy Land. With unfettered access to the imperial treasury, she set about restoring old churches, building new ones, founding monasteries and ripping down pagan temples.
During one of these temple-removals she came across her most famous discovery: the True Cross, which is still venerated today in reliquaries all over the world (notably in Santa Croce in Rome which was built around her imperial palace). She gathered nails from the crucifixion, the rope Jesus was tied with, Jesus’ tunic, and pieces of his tomb. She took her treasures back to Rome.
Helena died in Rome in 330. She was originally buried in a mausoleum you can still visit today. It’s right off the Berardi train stop. Of course now it’s empty. As is her elaborate sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. So where are the relics of the first relic hunter?
To answer that, let’s start back at the Carolingian period again. As I mentioned in the last blog post on St. Genevieve, this was a time of consolidation and greater conformity within religious orders. Practically speaking, this translated into more monks traveling to Rome. Some of those monks noticed that Rome had an awful lot of priceless saint’s relics lying around and no one was overly particular about documenting exactly what was where or even locking them down (as is sometimes still the case). During this time, a relic could still bring prestige to a monastery and support a pilgrimage industry in a small town, not to mention the miracles it could work. Thus, stories of furta sacra, or holy theft, began springing up all over Europe.
What makes holy theft different from plain old theft is in part the belief that the relics have some say in where they rest. The relics of St. John Chrysostom, for example, could not be moved by any man or animal until the ancestor of the saint’s persecutor wrote St. John a letter apologizing for his persecution. St. Johns relics then allowed the translation, which is what the formal process of moving a relic is called.
The body of St. Helena must have wanted to come to France. A monk named Theogisus returned to his monastery in Hautvillers on February 7th, 840 carrying a portion of her body he stole from her tomb in Rome. Upon finding out about the theft, the Pope didn’t order the return since St. Helena had clearly consented. (The rest of her body was later enshrined in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome in 1140 where you can still find it in an urn.)
From 840 to 1789 this piece of St. Helena stayed in the monastery at Hautvillers. While somewhat remote, it wasn’t a bad place for an empress since it was here Dom Perignon perfected champagne. When the French Revolution broke out the monastery was destroyed but the cellarer, Dom Grossard was able to hide the relics so they wouldn’t be desecrated like those of St. Genevieve.
By the mid 1800s it was safe to venerate relics in France again but Dom Grossard was now quite old. He wanted to ensure that after his death the relics of St. Helena would continue to be venerated and draw pilgrims. Fortunately, the last abbot of the monastery at Hautvillers was now Bishop of Paris. The two men arranged for the relics to be translated to a church were the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were reconvening after being suppressed during the Revolution. The Knights took St. Helena as their patron, so it was fitting she would rest in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, in the middle of Paris.
These days, the church and the Knights are separate entities, but the relics remain in the church, largely unknown to Parisians, let alone tourists. While the relics seem to trace directly back to Helena’s death in Rome, the complete story is never so simple. Scammers, opportunists, and wishful thinkers have plagued the history of relics. This was particularly true in the days of furta sacra. Plenty of unscrupulous Roman merchants were eager to offer deals on the holy dead to traveling monks hesitant to raid the churches and catacombs themselves.
This, combined with the difficulty of communicating over long distances and the fact that bodies were divided into infinitely smaller pieces helps explain why so many saints have duplicate body parts. Helena has a whole second body, which turned up in Constantinople. Those relics were partially translated to Venice in 1204 despite the fact that she was apparently already resting in Rome and Hautvillers by then. To this day Trier and Rome both still claim to possess her head.
In the past, it was hard to prove the absolute legitimacy of a relic. St. Helena initially discovered three crosses so she had a dying woman brought in to touch each one. After one cured her, Helena pronounced it the True Cross. According to some reports, Theogisus stepped into boiling water without being burned to prove the body he brought back was really St. Helena’s. Today we have carbon dating, DNA analysis and a host of other verification tools at our disposal yet there’s little interest in using these to trace the bodies of the holy dead, even among their most ardent defenders. But it isn’t simply a case of the faithful ignoring evidence that the objects in their shines might be fakes. Many Catholic theologians are aware of the diaspora of relics but use a test similar to the one that’s been used since Helena’s time: If it looks like a relic and performs like a relic (by drawing in the faithful and working miracles) then for all intents and purposes, it’s relic.
"A City Of Saints: The Forgotten Reliquaries Of Paris." Road to Emmaus, Vol. VII No. 2 (25). N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_25/A_CITY_OF_SAINTS.pdf>.
Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.
Harbus, A. Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Print.