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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Héléna, the cemetery saint

The following is an article I translated in 2010.  At the time, I wrote to the editor of the review in which it originally appeared (Terrain) and received permission to translate and post it, with the caveat that I have them check the translation first and that rights to the translation would rest with the Terrain.  Unfortunately, when I made contact with the editor after I'd finished the translation some months later (I wasn't in a hurry!) she said I needed to contact a colleague of hers so that she could verify the translation with the author, etc.  I wrote the colleague a few times with no response, so I wrote the editor again; no response.  I sat on this translation for some time and only recently said, screw it, I'm gonna post this sucker.  I think the translation is solid but it hasn't been officially cleared.  All rights belong to Terrain.  You can see the original article here:  http://terrain.revues.org/index3113.html. (This is a re-post).


My earlier post on Santa Héléna:  A Saint in the Terre Cabade.


Ex-votos at Santa Héléna's tomb.  LoS photo not from the original article.
Héléna, the cemetery saint
by Elisabeth Blanc
 
At a bend in a lane of the Toulouse municipal cemetery, there is an unusual tomb.  Surmounted by a baldaquin, it has a majestic appeal which breaks the monotony of the tombs around it.  The innumerable flowers climbing the length of the pillars create a colourful, verdant roof.  A climbing rosebush is mixed with wreaths of artificial flowers; pots of primrose, geraniums, and hyacinths are placed at its feet...  To complete the ensemble, living ivy supports a cascade of flowers peeking through its foliage – roses, lilies, carnations – and in gold letters clusters of marble plaques carry messages of thanks for favours received:  ex-votos most commonly reduced to a simple “Thank you”, sometimes followed by a name or an initial.  Buried in the vegetation, inaccessible to the eye, a stone plaque indicates at last that this is the final resting place of Hélène Soutade, deceased on the 11th of August, 1885, at the age of 48.

Around this tomb, one can observe the incessant coming and going of people of all ages.  This is because for Toulousains, this is the tomb of Santa Héléna.  A completely unofficial saint:  the archbishop refuses to decide on her case and does not even want to hear about it.  This, then, is what is called a “popular canonization”.  From observing the practices and behaviour around the tomb and from our dialogues with the passers-by, we will analyse the process of the creation and establishment of a new cultus.

So, what does Saint Héléna represent?  Why is there a need for a new saint in a city lacking neither relics nor holy places?  Next to the Garonne, the Daurade Basilica houses a very renowned Black Virgin.  Toulouse also has, among other things, a prestigious relic of Saint Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the church.  Pibrac, the village of Saint Germaine (known in these parts as “the saint of the country”) is very close and welcomes numerous pilgrims.  Yet in Toulouse’s Salonique cemetery, a veritable cultus is not only being born, but prospering.  How is it that a saint not recognized by the Church can find a place within the piety of the faithful?  Is it this very position on the fringes of official religion that explains its success?

Of course, the nascent fortune of Saint Héléna is reminiscent of the origins of many recognized cults.  Traditionally, this devotion first coalesces around the tomb of the future saint, a place where the requisite miracles multiply.  Furthermore, the saint must have a tangible reality; it is necessary to have a relic, either a fragment of the corpse or an object which belonged to or came into contact with her.  There must also be a biography devoted to her that gives her a human dimension and brings her closer to the faithful.  Finally, she is recognized for a “specialty” that, usually, calls for ritual gestures or specific forms of prayer.  We are going to see to what extent this standard program is fulfilled in the case of Saint Héléna.

The hagiographic machine

Not much is known about the life of Saint Héléna.  Her death certificate indicates that she was a schoolteacher, without further elaboration.  Rumour has it that she was also a nun.  An informant asserts that “at the age of 42, Hélène Soutade was touched by grace and entered the religious life under the name of Héléna.”  Information is rather meagre, but several legends circulating among her devotees fill in the gaps.  According to the most widespread, two white doves appeared in the in the sky and followed her funeral procession as it accompanied her body from Saint Etienne Cathedral to the cemetery.  The presence of these birds, associated with manifestations of the Holy Spirit, is considered to be a sign of grace sent by Heaven.  They are pictured on the tomb by a statue of white plaster probably inspired by this first legend.

Another marvellous episode:  it is said that in times past the tomb was made of wood; several years after the Saint’s death it caught fire due to a fallen candle.  During the course of repairs, a clumsy blow from a pickaxe split the coffin, revealing that the corpse was intact.  This way of recognizing saintliness is one of the most sure and widespread in hagiographic stories.[1]  However, according to the cemetery curator, no exhumation of Hélène Soutade’s body was ever performed.  Confusion has arisen from the fact that the body of her father was transferred from Saint Sernin cemetery to his daughter’s vault.  One can easily understand the reason behind these additions; they all serve to prove the sanctity of Héléna.  The rumour that she was a nun at the end of her life is part of the same process; to be recognized as a saint, one must meet certain criteria which have varied little over time, and a religious status leads more easily to sanctification than a secular one.  Similarly, the rumour that Héléna will be canonised or at least is being beatified reinforces the legitimacy of the devotion that surrounds her.  One often hears, “They will soon canonise her” or even, “It’s true that there is a history, that she has been canonised and everything....It’s well known.”

The tomb is thus a hallmark miracle.  It is also the only place where Saint Héléna has an earthly existence.  This concentration of the cultus within the cemetery and around her body recalls the cults of the ancient martyrs, origin of the cults of the saints.[2]  In this, Héléna in some respects revives the earliest days of Christianity.  Yet for a very long time Christians have looked to other relics – clothes, letters or missals – for a more sensitive presence of a mediator.  In the case of Saint Héléna, these peripheral relics are reduced to a piece of her dress, if not (it is said) the very nightgown she was wearing at the moment of her death.  Inserted into a frame of about 20 by 10 centimetres, it is hung from the baldaquin among the vegetation.  This humble relic offers a somewhat hazy image of the Saint on a bed, or more precisely, her face and upper chest upon a pillow.  This double relation – metonymic and analogical – recalls the Holy Shroud of Christ and confirms the miraculous atmosphere surrounding this tomb so unlike others.

Let us continue our inventory.  Saint Héléna already has a tomb and a relic, but she apparently still requires a face less evanescent than the one just mentioned.  Indeed, it can be discovered on a marble plaque called “her photo.”  It is a woman wearing a royal crown and cross.  The photocopied text of a prayer, for everyone to see, carries the same image.  This visage is none other than Saint Helene, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who discovered the True Cross of Jerusalem.  Thus, paradoxically, the desire to render Héléna more real, to give her an identity, takes precedence over the problems posed by the authenticity of her portrait.  The confusion continues regarding the medals of the “great” Saint Helene:  they are supposed to represent Héléna.  Sold in stores, they are supplementary proof of the size of her popularity.  Our privileged interlocutor tells anyone who wants to know that they are available in a certain jewellery shop for which he gives the address.

The identity of a saint is finally marked by a “speciality”, and Héléna, even in this regard, does not break the rule.  Because of her career as a schoolteacher, she is a saint of children.  She protects them and, by extension, helps achieve success in studies and exams.  Furthermore her role as educator has led mothers to pray to her for guidance in running their households.  But, as with all saints, the general trend is that the division into specialities is giving way, little by little, to “generalists”.  Thus, the saint chosen as a personal protector is used for all the needs of daily life.  Saint Héléna is solicited equally for matters of health, work, love and money.  The requests are written on pieces of paper placed under the eaves of the roof of the baldaquin, sheltered from the curious.  The faithful confide to her what is happening in their lives, simply and without false modesty:  “Saint Héléna, I beg of you, make it so that my son receives the file he’s been waiting for so that he can be hired and that Michelle has a favourable response at the post office and for her paramedics’ exam.”  There is complete trust in the saint:  “From the bottom of my soul, I am eternally grateful, and for each day God makes, there is a thought for you.”  The effectiveness of her interventions is proven:  “She hears.  I assure you she hears.  It’s true.  She fulfils no matter what.  I prayed for my daughter, so that she’d find work.  She’s been working for six months now.  Ever since, I have prayed every day so that she keeps her job.”  There’s no reason for more examples, but let us take note that they are numerous and unanimous:  “There are many people who come here.  We pray.  It’s well known.”

How does the devotion manifest itself?  Beyond the recitation of prayer, passing before the tomb is indispensable.  The faithful conform to an immutable ritual.  The sign of the cross is the point of departure (required for a holy place); next one must touch the relic.  This act “brings good luck”.  One person touched a scarf to the sacred frame and then put it back on for protection; another touched his keys to it in order to protect his home.  Another rubbed a piece of blank paper against the relic and explained that he was going to write a covering letter for a job upon it.  The photos of loved ones are subject to the same manipulation.  Prayers are accompanied by offerings of flowers.  A neighbourhood florist recounts:  “People buy flowers from me to place on the tomb of Saint Héléna.  It’s true that it’s a living.  One person comes every day and buys a rose for the saint.  There must be a lot, because she’s been coming for a while.”  Théo, the improvised head of this new cultus, says with pride that fifteen years ago he himself planted the rosebush covering most of the baldaquin and tomb.  Pilgrims swear that it remains green year round.

The visit to the tomb is thus of real importance to the devotees because the tomb represents the place of contact with the saint.  For them, this is represented by her tomb.  It is the one general rule in the cult of saints:  the closer one approaches the tomb, the greater the force of one’s request.  The particularity here is that this visit is not an occasion for pilgrims to come together in unity.  What is important is the round trip between the tomb and the home.  Nevertheless, one finds some aspects of the penitential and redemptive value traditionally associated with pilgrimage.  So, according to some sources, merely finding the tomb resembles a veritable initiatory journey demanding courage and perseverance:  the saint does not deliver after the first visit.  Listen to Jean recount his difficulties:  “My wife was seriously ill.  At the hospital, a lady told me about Saint Héléna.  So I told myself I had to come and see, for my wife.  But when I came for the first time, I was alone and I didn’t find the tomb.  I left.  Afterwards it troubled me, so I returned.  I asked a guard.  Even with his directions, I didn’t find it.  I went back to see him and then he brought me there.  It’s difficult to find.”

Thus, the promotion of the new saint and her cultus places her well within the habitual symbolic framework of hagiography and ordinary forms of devotion.  Some distortions linked to the absence of any ecclesiastic recognition, however, have been identified.  What are the consequences of this marginality on the modalities of construction of the legitimacy of Saint Héléna and the modalities of the worship rendered her?

The roads to legitimacy

For a devotee, it is important to know the life story of his or her favoured saint.  Indeed, for all the “official” saints, the Church assures the diffusion of biographical works that never cease with airy simplifications, sometimes resulting in something like simple comic books.  The Church encourages subscribing to reviews for a specific saint (for example:  Le Messager de saint Antoine de Padoue, Les Annales de sainte Germaine de Pibrac, La Revue de sainte Rita...), in which several pages are dedicated to the saint’s life, in a serial format.  For Saint Héléna, these means do not exist.  What we know of her is what we learn by coming to her tomb and by conferring with other devotees, whose own knowledge in turn comes from others.  Alone, this indefinite circle of “He told me that...” is not enough to fully satisfy the faithful.  Several sources deplore it:  “I would like to know about her life, what it was like.  It is said that she was a nun, but I don’t know anything.  I would like to know more, like the history of Saint Bernadette; on the life of Saint Héléna; there is nothing.”  Likewise:  “I don’t know anything about her life.  I’d like to have a book about her.”

In fact, the cult of Héléna is not entirely devoid of written sources.  Indeed, it is this that lies behind her recent renewal.  For the centennial of Héléna’s death, a journalist from La Dépêche du Midi took interest in the saint and published a series of articles describing the devotion around her tomb.[3]  An article entitled “La Guerison d’Aimée” (“The Healing of Aimée”) has played a large role.  It retraces the testimony of an older woman who was miraculously healed by praying before the tomb of the saint.  She was sent away without her canes and without any pain.  Let us listen to her testimony as written in the newspaper:  “I suffered so, above all at night, one might say a beast was gnawing upon me [...] But you know, I didn’t speak of healing when passing paper tissues over her tomb.  I asked her to remove this horrible pain.  It was Palm Sunday; my daughter brought me as close as possible to the tomb in the car.  I went to the vault, as I could, with my cane.  I stayed ten minutes and then I no longer felt pain.  I saw clearly what my daughter thought.  She said it was auto-suggestion.  I walked down the path without my cane and so tears came to my eyes.”  In the articles, the term “miracle pilgrim” is used.  Nothing more was necessary to renew trust in the saint and attract new adepts:  the devotees know these articles and above all “the” miracle.  The fact of being cited in a newspaper suffices to make it official and a manifestation of the sanctity of she who is at its origin.  Because even today, the intervention of the supernatural is necessary for the process of canonization to begin.  The miracle of Aimée and numerous spontaneous attestations of healing is enough to make Héléna a first-rate candidate for canonisation.

Writing thus occupies an important place in the relationship with the saints; it seems to lend an almost sacred solemnity to one’s knowledge.  It is also, for the faithful, a means of communication with the saints.  Let us examine this transition to writing.[4]  The tomb is covered in ex-votos.  Some are in the name of the saint:  “Thank you Saint Héléna.”  The fact that her name is engraved on plaques conforms to the usual norms of holy places and has a legitimising effect.  These ex-votos are at once both proof of and an engine of the cult’s dynamism.  “Look at all these plaques and thanks; there are many.  If we give thanks it’s because it’s true.  If not, people wouldn’t do it.”  In some places, for the accessible ex-votos, a little prayer is written in pencil.  The support material of the writing plays a fundamental role.  The plaque of the ex-voto is by definition a sign of grace obtained.  To write one’s own prayer there is thus a means of increasing its effectiveness.

Finally, a prayer to Saint Héléna is put at the disposition of the faithful who pass before her tomb.  It is photocopied and several copies are placed in a sort of mail box made of transparent plastic.  Théo, of whom we will soon speak, takes care of the photocopies.  In effect, it is his mission to propagate the cultus, to make “his” saint known:  “I recopied it so that it is passed on to all who come.”  Saint Héléna supposedly dictated this prayer before dying.  It is thus a sacred text that has been conserved.  The form of her writing is a bit heterodox.  Surprising punctuation and typos give it a hand-made charm.  Yet everything is organized with the aim of bringing it closer to the prescribed practices of customary forms of devotion:  the prayer is to be said at home, in the form of a novena, accompanied by the Pater Noster and Ave Maria in the presence of three candles lit on different days.  The leaflet it is written on itself becomes a part of the devotion.  One lady recounts:  “I have it at home, the prayer.  I put it on a dresser and around it, the three candles.  I pray before it.”  Thus a veritable domestic altar is created.  Lacking a pious image or a statuette of the saint, it is her word that is venerated and sacred.  The prayer multiplies the places of worship by creating peripheral devotional spaces.  Saint Héléna, who only has her tomb as a central place of worship, in this way enters the home.

The mediator’s mediator

To complete the inventory of the processes by which Héléna has become a saint, we must at last speak of Théo, who is principally responsible for the prosperity of her cultus today, and who we met during one of our visits to the cemetery where he spends most of his afternoons.  Théo, a retiree in his sixties, considers himself to be the guide to pilgrims and the repository of a unique knowledge of Héléna and her story.  He speaks voluntarily about his encounter with the saint:  at the age of 15, a nun from his school asked him to spend a week with her in order to “show him the tomb of Saint Héléna.  It’s due to her that I know it.”  This week seems to have been a kind of first initiation in the adolescent’s life.  Already marked by Héléna, Théo had a second encounter that would play a determining role.  During his military service, an army chaplain continued his initiation.  “He liked me a lot and said he would make me his heir.  He taught me everything about Saint Héléna and on the eve of his death about 30 years ago (he knew the exact date of his death; on January 1st he told me he would die before the 31st of August and he died on the evening of August 30th), he passed his gifts and everything he knew about Saint Héléna on to me.”  How did he know about the saint?  According to Théo, this chaplain was an exorcist priest.  As for the gifts to which he alludes, his own acolyte, Jean, discretely confided the secret:  “Théo works miracles; he helps people who come here.”  Théo confirms this assertion:  “I must help people; Saint Héléna demands it of me.”

Thus emerges the road towards a vocation.  The encounters that led him to the saint are not due to chance.  For Théo, it is Saint Héléna who chose him, who elected him.  As a consequence, he feels invested in a divine mission for those expecting comfort from the saint; he even identifies himself with her:  “In the evening, before going to bed, I take off my glasses and put them open on the table in order to receive the gifts of heaven, and in the morning, when I put them on, I am Saint Héléna.”  The miracles he claims to perform are therefore justified since the saint is supposed to act through him.  His name confirms his vocation:  Théo – real name or pseudonym? – the name of God in Greek, theos.

Théo personally possesses a relic of the saint’s dress, a scrap of cloth about 2 centimetres square, reminiscent of burlap, attached to his key ring.  This was a gift from the priest who initiated Théo:  he always carried this relic with him when he practiced an exorcism.  Through this intermediary, Théo maintains a privileged relationship with the saint; he is in permanent and direct contact with her, which enables him “to help people who come to the tomb.”  For Théo considers himself as an intermediary between the saint and her devotees.  Convinced that Héléna acts through him, he collects their requests and submits them to her.  This obliges him to spend a large part of every afternoon near the tomb.  Seated on the timeworn slab of a neighbouring grave, he talks gravely with the faithful who file before him one after the other, as in a confessional.  In these moments he cannot be disturbed and nobody dares trouble him, so much does his attitude and role seem sacred.  He has the manner of a charismatic master who dispenses lessons of all kinds and, essentially, advice pertaining to the management of private lives.[5]

It was not easy to convince Théo to reveal the nature of his power, which he considers secret.  Nevertheless, little papers found around the tomb help us to understand how it works:  Théo selects the demands entrusted to him and that he deems important (his selection criteria remain unknown), notes them on a piece of paper and hides them in a nook in the tomb.  In this way the saint is made aware of the problems directly.  Other pilgrims were seen to proceed in the same manner without going through her intermediary.  Nevertheless, he remains the most regular and intimate correspondent.  He stands apart in using brightly-coloured cardstock, red or yellow.  A series of messages indicates how much the saint is a part of his life:  “Breaking in my shoes, I come to say many thanks.”; “I think of you often and will think of you all my life.”  He ceaselessly recalls his total faithfulness and the exclusive character of his devotion:  “You are the only one I deal with.  All the rest don’t interest me at all.”  He even declares lovingly:  “You know that, at night, I am always with you and will stay there until you come looking for me, as soon as possible.”

Essentially, however, this privileged connection is put in the service of others.  So, Théo must resolve, one after another, the numerous problems submitted to him:  “Our business concluded, now I’m tackling that of our poor girl and her little children.  They really need you and above all a miracle for a place to live.”  This request is written on a simple piece of paper.  On the other hand, some cases seem to require more attention.  The media with which the prayer is written thus becomes a true ritual strategy.  One of his “patients,” having eye troubles, wrote this prayer:  “Sainte Héléna, please make Germaine see again as quickly as possible.  Many thanks in advance” upon a piece of paper with a representation of an eye.  It is as if it were a handbill upon which he has drawn the ailment in pencil.  The choice of media augments the effectiveness of one’s demand.  This paper is placed in a corner of the roof of the tomb, folded completely and torn into several pieces beforehand.  Does this indicate that he does not want his secret to be able to be discovered and reused?

To obtain the aid of the saint, Théo promises to help her in exchange:  “I’ll do everything to help you; help me for them.”  Still uncertain about the exact nature of his duties he writes her:  “If there is something else to do, let me know with the lights.”  At the very least, the knowledge he alone possesses gives him a certain legitimacy and this exclusivity preserves his superiority over others:  the cemetery regulars consider he himself to be like a saint.  Curiously, he seems to project onto the links between Héléna and the Virgin the ambiguity of his own position as mediator. Here is in effect what he confided to us under the seal of secrecy:  Saint Héléna is associated with the Holy Virgin.  The tomb here is a “chapel of
Lourdes.”  Toulouse being a big city, there are numerous requests for her graces.  Saint Héléna has a mission to gather, sort and send them to the Virgin at Lourdes, who ultimately sends them to Heaven.  This revelation perhaps sheds light on the large number of plaques of black marble engraved “I prayed for you at Lourdes” deposited at the foot of the tomb.  These standard ex-votos remind the saint of the promises made between her and the faithful who have prayed to her.  In exchange for a wish granted, the latter bring her an object proving they have gone to Lourdes for her.  One can read on a normal piece of paper, for example:   “If you help me win the trifecta from time to time, I’ll go to pray for you at Lourdes.”

Théo has even developed an original interpretation of this theology of mediation.  In his view, between Christmas and the New Year, one must not wait for fulfilment because heaven is closed “for inventory.”  All the requests made during the year which have not been dealt with are thrown out.  So one should not hesitate to make one’s request again and above all, have faith.  Up above, everything appears to work in a very administrative manner!

This vision of heaven, despite its apparent peculiarity, falls within a quite ordinary system of thought.  The idea that the Holy Virgin resides at Lourdes is widespread and her quasi-regional association with Saint Héléna reinforces the power of the Toulousain Saint.  Furthermore the “time off” period described by Théo corresponds to the “twelve days” of folklore.  This lapse of time is assigned a singular value.  Taking a very widely held belief (Van Gennep 1988: 3399-3405), Théo explains that it is possible to forecast the weather during the entire coming year from these days, each corresponding to a month.  This example might seem trivial or even anecdotal, but in Spain, the cabanuelas tradition situates this pre-calendar in the first twelve days of August (Delpech 1986: 71), and Héléna is honoured on August 11....

Théo’s knowledge is thus an amalgam of popular culture and personal innovation that he has integrated into a recreated hagiographic logic.  He does not hesitate to at times take very old conjurations, the following for example, found among the papers with which he seeds the tomb:

“Monsignor Saint John
Passing by this place
On his route
Three virgins found.
He asked them:  What are you doing here?
We are healing the leucoma.  So that evil leaves here.
O Virgins, fervently heal the evil and pain of two people.
Leucoma, fire of grief, fire of whatever it be:  nails, migraines, spiders.  I command you
to no have no more power over their eyes than the Jews had on Easter Day over the body
of Christ.”

The original text of this famous conjuration is addressed to Saint John.  Théo has personalised it by adding his saint:  “Saint John, I have associated you with the lights along with Saint Héléna so that she is aware of you and works with you.”  A medallion of the saint is rolled in a paper copy of the prayer, along with an explanatory text:  “Saint Héléna, I made you wear the medal so that you protect the sight of this young mother.”  In this way he reinforces the effectiveness of the prayer by recourse to a traditional form already having a certain legitimacy and by the gift of an object of piety.  At the same time, the illness is registered on another plane than that of medicine, becoming an evil that can be fought with ritual formulas.  In fact, the principal power of Théo concerns the forces of evil.  He fights against the demon, protects against villains.  His secret and the weapon he prescribes to his faithful is the following:  “One must always have some holy water on them.”  He takes a bottle containing the water to which he adds perfume after drawing it from church stoups.  This perfumed water fools the Devil, who has no doubts that is real consecrated water.  Théo thus needs the church as an institution because it alone can furnish the means of repulsing demons; yet, at the same time he preserves his autonomy by creating an unorthodox mixture.  The cult of Saint Héléna proceeds along the same schema.  In order to function, it is necessary to enter the ordinary framework of sanctity while at the same time guarding a certain uniqueness.  It must be said that Théo seems to personally have quite an antagonistic position relative to the Church and Christianity in general.  Without being able to discover his secret, let us read what he confides to Saint Héléna about Christ on a little piece of paper.  “Given some results, I have just made peace with Him.  Despite owing me thirty-seven years, I want nothing more from Him.  With everything He may have heard, I hope He will understand.”

The power of the margin

Why is it that the question of the Devil often surrounds Saint Héléna?  From where does this underlying fear come?  Is the place cursed?  Indeed, in some regards Héléna is not a very Catholic saint….  First of all, the glass frame containing her miraculous image-relic is credited with a strange power.  For some, a fluid comes out of it.  “It’s a part of her relic that liquefies, that maintains constant contact with the earth.  The frame is the place where the sky and earth come together.  There is a force.  We feel it when we touch it.  We feel its presence.”  When one passes a hand over the frame, one is supposed to feel tingling.  One source recounts:  “Friday, I had the impression that it was pulling my hand.  The same day, a lady I often meet felt a slap.  She had to sit down to catch her breath.”  What are this fluid and this tingling?  Why be so precise about the date, a Friday?  This fluid seems to have little relation to the power of saints, since it is said that healers and magnetic healers come to her tomb to strengthen their power and recharge.

Another troubling element:  it is rumoured that the tomb of the Toulousain is in fact that of a Gypsy.  It appears that the Gypsies of the region come here in pilgrimage, leaving pantyhose, tights, bras, handkerchiefs, pacifiers.... “They even leave sweaty knitted underwear!”  Today, every trace of these visits has been cleaned as if they had never taken place.  The sense of the message could not be clearer:  object of devotion by Gypsies and a Gypsy herself, the saint finds herself sent to the margins, even acquiring the image of sorcery commonly attached to Gypsy fortune tellers or spell casters.  Simple chance perhaps, that in Catalan oral tradition at the beginning of the last century, Saint Helene (the real one, so to speak) was a kind of witch and healer who told fortunes using cards.  A deck of cards purchased on her feast day brought the owner good luck.  She was the patroness of all those who practiced such disreputable professions (Amades 1953: 867).  Elsewhere, Saint Héléna is associated by some of her faithful with Saint Martha:  “For serious things I turn to Saint Martha and for little things, I go to see Saint Héléna.”  Indeed, we have found a recopied prayer dedicated to Saint Martha on the tomb.  This association is not at all arbitrary:  the patroness of servants and households sits well next to this humble schoolteacher to whom one confides the tribulations, large and normal, of everyday living.  Above all, Saint Martha is said, again in Catalonia, to be the patroness of witches.  Elsewhere in Spain she is split into Martha the saint and Martha the mean, the latter being invoked in spells for love magic of the most innocuous sort (Delpech 1986).  Once again, for Saint Héléna, a dubious companion.

Things go much further.  Théo explained to us in apocalyptic terms that Saint Héléna has no need for the Church.  The day that she decides to make herself known for her true worth, she will succeed by herself in rising from her casket, and her body will appear intact for everyone to see.  This sort of resurrection has an avenging character:  at the same time as the pillars of her tomb fall, allowing her body to pass, “the crosses will fall.”  According to Théo, this process is already underway.  Seen from the side, two pillars of the baldaquin have the tendency to lean to the right, in their “fall” taking with them a crucifix attached to one of them.  A decidedly odd saint, then, whose triumph calls for the humiliation of the most sacred Christian symbol.  The eschatological character of Saint Héléna  leads present Christianity to its end–as opposed to her namesake of the earliest times, Saint Helene, who is herself at the origin of its development inasmuch as it became the official religion of the Roman Empire through the intermediary of her son Constantine after the Edict of Milan in 313 CE.  The connection between the saints is traced around the cross.  Saint Helene discovered the True Cross of Christ and raised it above the earth.  Inversely, it is predicted that Saint Héléna will make it fall.  We are thus witness to a true structural variation on the theme of the invention of the cross.
 
At the end of this brief study, the example of Saint Héléna appears characteristic not only of the current state of the cult of saints but also of much older processes that reveal the function of this type of devotion.  The cult of saints preserves its vitality to this day, even if its manifestations have changed.  Great collective celebrations have given way to an intimate and domestic devotion without fixed dates.  This evolution has the particular sensibility of an urban milieu.  Unlike the “major” saints of old, the most honoured saints of our times share a complete detachment from agricultural life; on the contrary, they are concerned with the daily preoccupations of city-dwelling populations.  These are most often “minor” saints, because of both the simplicity of their lives and the humility of their perceived “specialties”.  Anthony of Padua, patron of lost objects, is a humble Franciscan; Thérèse of Lisieux develops a spirituality impregnated with images of unworthiness and normalness with the path of “spiritual childhood”;  Germaine of Pibrac is a poor shepherdess mistreated by her stepmother; Rita de Cascia, patroness of desperate causes, is a wife submitted to an irascible husband before enclosing herself in the silence of the contemplative life.

Héléna, through the humility of her earthly existence, finds a place in this company.  At the same time, the power vested in her reflects her relative illegitimacy, expressing all the prestige of a more direct relationship with heaven than that authorized by the mediation of the Church.   This is without a doubt a movement which has pushed believers to honour men and women who would sometimes be universally accepted within the Church as great saints, but in many cases taken for heretics, false messiahs or false prophets.  The legend of some well-known saints, among them Saints Rita and Jude, carry the mark of this ambiguity:  as Lucetta Scaraffia (1990) has shown, in some regards Rita resembles a witch; Jude the apostle has the same name as Judas....  Héléna herself unites good and evil in a troubling manner.  The dark side of her legend is a direct expression of her marginality and that of the group of her faithful in relation to the official Church.  Yet far from being a handicap, this marginality confirms the efficiency of her power as a mediator.  It is to the point that her devotees fear recognition would deprive them of a familiar presence as she was brought up in the ranks:  “Here, it’s her place.  She is fine.  We like her where she is.”   Or:  “If they beatify her, they will take her away.  She’s ok here.  Where will they put her?  What will we do when she’s no longer here?”


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Notes

[1] For more on this phenomenon and the odour of sanctity with which it is often associated, cf. Albert (1990).  This mode of recognition is largely known in the region through the legend of Saint Germaine of Pibrac.  Cf. J. de Pina-Cabral (1989) shows that in Portugal where the practice of a second funeral is found, the state of preservation of a corpse when a coffin is opened five years after death has been read differently by families and the clergy.  While the church foresees a ritual of “lifting excommunication” for incorrupt bodies not treated as damned, popular opinion sees in them a mark of sanctity, if it has already been affirmed during the individual’s lifetime.

[2] “At the end of the 5th century, the tombs of saints, which were found in cemeteries [....] became centres of ecclesiastical life in their region.  Indeed, it was believed the saint who as gone to Heaven was present in his earthly sepulchre.”  (Brown 1984: 1-4).

[3] This report by M. Cabanne is composed of two articles:  “A Saint in Salonique”, from July, 1985, and; “Healing Amy” with the sub-title “A Toulousain grandmother no longer suffers after visiting the tomb of a young woman buried a hundred years ago, known by the name of Saint Héléna.  She is not alone” (January, 1987).

[4] 4 For a more detailed analysis on writing in sacred relationships see the work of Marlène
Albert-Llorca (1993).

[5] One can cite the case of Padre Pio, an Italian stigmatic, who spent his life spiritually counselling his visitors and responding to thousands of letters from devotees from around the world (cf. the article by Christopher McKevitt in the same issue, NDLR).


Citing this article

Electronic reference
Elisabeth Blanc, « Héléna, la sainte du cimetière », Terrain [En ligne], 24 | 1995, mis en ligne le 07 juin 2007. URL : http://terrain.revues.org/index3113.html

Blanc E., 1995, « Héléna : la sainte du cimetière », Terrain, n° 24, pp. 33-42.

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