Helena was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. In the year 326, when she was in her 70s, she undertook a mission to establish great churches at significant Christian sites in the Holy Land. Even more than building churches, her heart’s desire was to discover the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Once in Jerusalem, she headed straight to Golgotha (aka Calvary), the rocky hill just outside the city gates, where Jesus was crucified, according to all four Gospels. Finding a Roman temple there, she ordered her crew to tear it down. During that demolition and subsequent excavation for the new church, a cache of three wooden crosses was discovered. Helena thought one of these crosses must be the cross of Jesus but she didn’t know which. So the crosses were taken to the bedside of a very sick woman, who touched each cross, one at a time. The first two crosses had no effect, but when she touched the third cross, she was healed. Now, Helena had her True Cross.
Construction continued at Golgotha and the great Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre rose and stood on the spot until it was mostly destroyed in 1009 by the occupying Fatimids (previous and later Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem protected Christian holy sites). This destruction of the most sacred temple in Christendom was a large motivator of the first crusade.
Back to Helen. After striking ground on the Holy Sepulchre, Helen founded a church on the Mount of Olives, a place of retreat for Jesus. The original church is long gone but the modern church of Pater Noster (Our Father) stands on same site and is dedicated to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.
From Jerusalem, Helena made the short journey to Bethlehem, where locals led her to the cave where their tradition maintained that Jesus was born. Again, Helena’s church is lost to us but the Church of Nativity that stands on the same spot today was built in 565CE and is the oldest church in the holy land still in use.
Next, Helena trekked into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where she founded a chapel on the traditional site of Moses’ burning bush. That chapel was surrounded by St. Catherine’s Monastery in the 6th century.