St Helena (246-330), Protector of the Holy Places

St Helena , is celebrated on 21 May and given the title ‘Protector of the Holy Places’.   She was born in the middle of the third century (246-8) at a place called Drepanum (later re-named Helenopolis) on what is now the Gulf of Edremit in western Turkey.   The picture is a photograph of the east window of the Anglican Chapel in Istanbul dedicated to St Helena.

St Helena gave birth to Constantine on 27 February 270-72 in Naissus[1].  It is not clear whether Helena was lawfully married to Constantius, Constantine’s father.  Helena separated from Constantius and was sent with Constantine to live in the Palace of Emperor Diocletian in Nicomedia, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  In 308 when Constantine became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, he made his mother, Helena, Augusta, that is Empress.  Constantine went on to become the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and founded the city of Constantinople, known now as Istanbul.

Helena is reputed to have become a Christian in 312, and that she fully embraced the Christian life[2]. In 327, Helena visited Jerusalem.  She is reputed to have found the ‘true cross’ and the exact place where Christ was crucified.  Her visit was part of a plan to promote Jerusalem as a centre of pilgrimage.  At that time the city was a backwater of the Roman Empire since its destruction in 66CE.  With Helena’s visit also began a period of imperially funded Church building projects in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  The Churches of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity and the church on the Mount of Olives were all initiated about this time and continued by Constantine after his mother died in 330 CE.

There is some suggestion by historians that one of the motivations of the pilgrimage and building programme was to showcase the Christian commitment of the Imperial family, particularly in the wake of the murder of Crispus, Constantine’s eldest son and his step-mother Fausta.

The dowager Empress Helena is recorded as showing charity and largess to all the communities that she encountered on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Eusebius (born 260), the Church Historian is a source for stories about Helena and her son Constantine.

Helena and her son, Constantine, are both associated with the cross.  Constantine had a vision of the cross before he went into battle and later Helena is supposed to have found the true cross.

‘Theodoret[3] (died c. 457) recounts what would become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross:

When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord’s sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.

With the Cross were also found the Holy Nails, which Helena took with her back to Constantinople. According to Theodoret, “She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity.”’

‘The Veneration of the Cross is part of the Good Friday liturgy.  The practice was perhaps introduced by Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386). Egeria, the pilgrim, describes the unveiling (on the morning of Good Friday) of the true cross discovered by St. Helena and the threefold veneration by the devout who touched the cross with their forehead, then their eyes, and then their lips, and also provides a vivid account of the care taken in Jerusalem to prevent worshippers from biting out pieces of the wood of the cross to take away for use as talismans.  Relics of the cross spread throughout Europe; they were known in Rome at the end of the seventh century.’[4]

Helena’s influence came not just from her own personal wealth and personality but was backed by the full power of the state and possibly a mother’s desire to help establish her son’s Christian credentials.

Modern historians are sceptical about the finding of the ‘true cross’.  It could also have been that the site of Christ’s tomb, Golgotha and other places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were common knowledge even in the fourth century when Helena visited Jerusalem.   At that time the symbol for Christians of Christ was the fish – Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ ‘Ichthus’ which spelt out the first letters, in Greek of ‘Jesus Christ, son of God, Saviour’.  This symbol was displaced by the cross after Helena found the supposed ‘true cross’ during her visit to Jerusalem.

The Historian Dairmaid MacCulloch describes the use of the acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthus):   …the usual Christian visual symbol for Christ had been a fish, since the Greek word for ‘fish’, ichthys, could be turned into an acrostic for the initial letters of a Greek phrase, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’, or similar devotional variants. Now the fish was far outclassed not only by the new imperial Chi-Rho monogram referring to the same word, but also by the Cross. Crosses had featured little in public Christian art outside written texts before the time of Constantine; now they could even be found as motifs in jewellery.[5]

Which symbol of Christ, or the Christian faith is meaningful in our current era?  What have we lost as Christians by the displacement of the acrostic ICHTHUS by the cross?

The challenge for women and men of every age is to articulate and live out their faith in Christ in a way that is glorifying to God and a blessing to those that they live amongst.  Christians are called Christians because they bear the name of Christ, and seek to replicate the life of Christ in and through their own lives.

There is no collect in the Anglican prayer book to commemorate the life and example of St Helena.  I suggest that the collect for Holy Cross Day[6] is a suitable prayer for today:

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of live and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

[1] Nis, Serbia

[2] Saints on Earth: A Biographical Companion to Common Worship Location 2226.  Kindle Version.

[3]  Theodoret[3] (died c. 457) Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii

[4] Pfatteicher, Philip H.. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year . Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 194-195). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[6] Celebrated on 14 September in the Anglican Liturgical Calendar

Florence Nightingale – Born 12 May 1820 – International Nurses Day 2020

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

This is a re-post of the original article on Florence Nightingale as today in celebration of the 200th anniversary of her birth today has been declared as International Nurses Day.  For further information

In this time of the Covid19 pandemic emergency hospitals in UK have been named after Florence Nightingale.  Highlighting the importance of her life work in establishing nursing as a recognised profession.

There are hospitals in Turkey named after Florence Nightingale. She is known in Turkey because of her contribution to nursing reform and the establishment of sanitary hospitals which began when she had a leading role in setting up the hospital where soldiers wounded during the Crimean war were nursed. Her hospital was established by the British Army in Selimiye Barracks[1](Selimiye Kışlası), Haydarpaşı, Istanbul. In the aftermath of this experience Florence Nightingale contributed much to the training of nurses, the establishment of sanitary hospitals and barracks.


The Anglican Church commemorates the life of Florence Nightingale on 13 August, the day she died in 1910. She was born in Florence, Italy on 12 May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. Her parents were on a three year tour of Europe when she and her sister were born. Florence’s father inherited his fortune from an uncle who had owned a lead mine and country estates. Florence’s paternal grandfather had been a Sheffield Banker. Because of his rich inheritance Florence’s father didn’t need to work so he was able to introduce his family to fashionable places in Europe, they also owned two mansions in England – Lea Hurst, Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire. During ‘the season’ they also stayed in London. The Nightingales were part of a large extended family that they often met with for parties and social events.


In the 19th century a wealthy family like Florence Nightingale would help with education and medical care or nursing of the sick or dying in their area. During her life-time Florence Nightingale was involved in teaching in local schools near her parent’s home. She would also go with her mother to take food to those who were sick or dying.


One story is told about her tending to a sheepdog called Cap. This probably happened when she was about 6 years old near Embley, the family home. The then vicar, Jarvis Trigge Giffard, of the local Anglican Church, St Margaret’s, East Wellow attests to the story. Cap, a shepherd’s collie, was discovered by Florence on the downs near Embley. The account says that:

‘Stones thrown by schoolboys had broken his leg, and the shepherd had intended to put him out of his misery by hanging him. However, with the guidance of the local vicar, Florence administered to the wounded animal, placing hot cloths as fomentations to reduce the swelling, thereby saving his leg and ensuring that Cap would continue as a working farm dog.’[2]


From this and other incidents during Florence Nightingale’s early life it became clear to her that she found great pleasure and satisfaction in caring for others who were sick and needy. As she grew older she became increasingly dissatisfied with her life of family parties, visits to London and travel abroad. In the 19th Century a woman of Nightingale’s social background was not expected to be educated or have a profession. Women of her class were expected to be accomplished in music, drawing and caring for a household but definitely not engage in nursing or hospital management.


Florence Nightingale’s family were Unitarians, but they would often worship at a local Anglican Church if there wasn’t a Unitarian Chapel nearby. Florence’s paternal grandmother was a devout Anglican who although married to a Unitarian continued to worship according to the Anglican tradition. This grandmother was devout and would say her prayers upon rising in the morning and again after lunch. Florence recalled many years later how:

‘We children,… knew that grandmother went up to say her prayers & we could hear her voice in the passage, speaking to God with such passion and earnestness – as if he were in the room, which he certainly was.’[3]

It seems that nominally Florence Nightingale would remain an Anglican although she ceased to attend church regularly as early as her thirties.


Her first sense of vocation, of God calling her to serve was on 7 February 1837 when she was only 16 years old. She recounts how ‘God spoke to me and called me to His service.’[4]This sense of calling would sustain her for many years. Her sense of vocation and calling continued to develop. Particularly at a retreat in Rome and while visiting Egypt her sense of vocation grew and developed.  During the retreat in Rome and at other visits to the Convent[5]she spoke with the Madra Santa Colombe who led the convent:

“Listening sympathetically to what Florence told her of her life at home, she had responded: ‘It is no good separating yourself from people to try and do the will of God. That is not the way to gain his blessing. What does it matter even if we are with people who make us desperate? So long as we are doing God’s will, it doesn’t matter at all.’”[6]


At the end of the ten day retreat Florence Nightingale recorded in her journal the following dialogue with the Madre:

‘MADRE: Did not God speak to you during this retreat? Did he not ask you anything? FLORENCE: He asked me to surrender my will.

MADRE: And to whom?

FLORENCE: To all that is upon the earth.

MADRE: He calls you to a very high degree of perfection. Take care. If you will resist you will be very guilty.’[7]


Florence and the Bracebridges returned home in 1850. Some months after their return Florence began to feel that she had never been away and she felt the old aimlessness assert itself. She wrote to her father: “‘Everything here is in statu quo atmosphere like a warm bath …,’”[8]


During a visit to Egypt in 1850 she had a moment of spiritual and intellectual epiphany which Bostbridge describes thus:

‘The lesson she derived from this was clear. God makes laws which mankind breaks, and man’s evil, equated with his error, is a necessary agent of the teaching through which God will bring each and every one of us to perfection.’[9]


These spiritual experiences during her life, coupled with meeting others interested in changing hospitals, schools and sanitation helped to prepare her for her future role in the nursing world in Britain and the world. In July 1851, while the Bracebridges were at a nearby spa, taking a cure, Florence Nightingale went for two weeks to Kaiserswerth where she observed their hospital, school and the way that nursing care was offered in a protestant context.


Her first real opportunity to work in the Nursing world was in 1853 when she was appointed the Superintendent of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, in Harley Street, London. This gave her the opportunity to put into practice what she had observed in hospitals in Europe and develop her skills as an administrator that would be so important during her time at the Military Hospital in Selimiye Barracks, Istanbul. In order to take up the position in London, she not only had to be appointed by the management committee of the hospital but also have her father’s expressed permission. He agreed for her to take up the appointment and committed to paying her an annual allowance of £500.   There was much family discussion and opposition to this move but eventually her family agreed to her taking the job as Superintendent.


The Crimean war broke out in March 1854. In October of 1854 Sydney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War asked Florence Nightingale to lead a nursing mission to Selimiye Barracks[10].   Very swiftly nurses were appointed and arrangement made for thirty-eight nurses, Florence Nightingale and the Bracebridges to accompany the group to the Military Barracks on the Asian side of the Bosphorus opposite to what was then known as the City of Constantinople. In the eighteenth century the barracks were in an area known as Scutari. The modern name is Selimiye or Haydarpaşa.


The barracks is still in use as a military establishment and stands proud overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. There is still a Museum there in memory of Florence Nightingale’s role in nursing the British Soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.


When the women arrived at the hospital they set about cleaning and making shirts. The promised supplies had not arrived and proper food was not available. Eventually Florence Nightingale and her nurses brought order to the situation and were allowed by the army doctors to go into the wards and nurse the men. It was vital that Florence Nightingale won over the medical staff in order that they could work together effectively. It was during her time as nursing superintendent at the Scutari hospital that Florence Nightingale became known as the lady with the lamp because of her use of a lamp when she visited the wards to check on the men at the dead of night. Florence Nightingale returned to Britain in August 1856, she was revered by the British public as the Lady with the lamp who had cared for the sick and wounded soldiers and greatly improved the mortality rate.


On returning to London she used her experience and influence to bring about changes in hospitals and sanitation in military barracks. She was well respected and had an amazingly wide influence. Her determination to fulfil God’s calling on her life to serve was fulfilled not only in the results in better patient care for the sick and wounded from the Crimean War but in the years that followed when she studied reports, made recommendations and campaigned for change. She went on to write her Notes for Nurses and to set up a school for nurses.


God has created us all in his image and has a vocation that only we can fulfil. Let us take heart from the way Florence Nightingale struggled to understand her vocation and then fulfil her calling in the face of strong opposition to her parents and older sister. Her family did eventually support her in the call to go and provide good nursing care to the soldiers in the Crimean War and they were very proud of her success in fulfilling the government’s commission of October 1854. The world is a richer place because of women like Florence Nightingale who wrestle with God and follow his leading in their lives.


Prayer inscribed by Florence Nightingale in her copy of St Thomas A Kempis’ book:

‘What will happen to her, O God, I do not know;

all I know is that nothing will happen that You have not ruled,

foreseen and ordained from all eternity …

I make my sacrifice one with that of Jesus Christ my saviour.’[11]

[1]Often referred to as Scutari.

[2] Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend. (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition),  p. 46.


[3]Ibid p.32.

[4] Ibid p.54

[5] During her visit to Rome with Mr and Mrs Bracebridge in 1847/8. The Bracebridges would also accompany Florence to Istanbul when she worked at the hospital in Selimiye Barracks.

[6] Bostridge op cit p.120

[7] Ibid p.121

[8] Ibid p.122

[9] Ibid p.137

[10]These barracks are often referred to as ‘Scutari’ in modern Turkish they are referred to as the Selimiye Kışlası – which might be translated as the Sultan Selim III Barracks,

[11] These were the words of Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, as she awaited execution as a prisoner in the Temple during the French Revolution. Using these words Florence submitted herself to the will of God. Idib p.210


Copyright © 2020 Rev Ros Wilkinson

Jesus and Women

This mosaic is found in the gallery of the Church of the Holy Wisdom – also known as Haghia Sophia.  It was established as the Cathedral Church of Istanbul.  It is now a museum.

I continue writing my book about the history of Christian Women who have lived in what is now modern day Turkey.  Their history starts in AD30 – the year that Jesus Christ was crucified and continues up to the present day.  I hope to publish my book later this year.

The first two chapters of my book are looking at what the bible has to say about women.  In my research I have come across a very valuable resource produced by Dr Kenneth Bailey.  He had a long career working in universities in the Middle East teaching Middle Eastern New Testament Studies.  His books contain unique insights into the Middle Eastern world that Jesus and his disciples would have been familiar with.   His insights are very helpful in the exegesis of the gospels.  Some years ago Dr Bailey produced six videos on Jesus and women in the bible.   He has also published Poet and Peasant, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Through Peasant Eyes and Jacob and the Prodigal.  

Click on the link below to listen to Dr Kenneth Bailey’s lectures on youtube:

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