The Life of St Helier
The following Life of Saint Helier is an extract, translated by the Rev Father Christian Burdo, from the great work published in Antwerp in 1725 by the Bollandists and entitled Acta Sanctorum (The lives of the Saints).
The Life here translated was written, in the opinion of the learned Bollandist Fathers in, or after, the 10th century. Three versions of the Life existed in 1658, all apparently derived from the same source, the oldest being an ancient and damaged manuscript discovered in the city of Le Mans.
At the time when King Childebert ruled fearlessly over the whole of Gaul, the savage Queen Brunechilde having perished, there lived among the easterly people in the town of Tongres a certain nobleman named Sigebard.
He was remarkable for the extent of his possessions and the greater dignity of his birth. According to pagan reckoning he was in all things the mightiest man in those regions.
On attaining an age when marriage is natural, Sigebard espoused a girl named Lusegard, whose father was of the tribe of the Bavari and whose mother was of the Suevi. Lusegard was distinguished, as was but fitting for the nobility of her person, for the uprightness of her character and for the gentility of her descent.
Though endowed with youth and riches Sigebard and Lusegard became sad, for by the seventh year of their married life they were still without a child.
Now at that time there was a holy man in the city named Cunibert who was much beloved and honoured by Christian and pagan alike. This good man used to visit the home of Sigebard in the hope of turning him from the worship of idols. And Sigebard, desiring a son, implored Cunibert to intercede with God on his behalf, promising that if his prayer were granted, the boy would be dedicated to the service of Our Lord. The prayer of Cunibert was answered in due course, but the parents failed to fulfil their promise.
When the child reached the seventh year of his age he became sick of an incurable sickness. Sigebard, at the entreaty of the paralytic boy, tardily fulfilled his promise and handed him over to Cunibert. The holy man prayed over the sick child and he became whole again. Then did the Saint receive him as a catechumen, naming him Helier, that is to say Mercy, because by God's mercy he had become whole.
And so the Saint brought him into the church and cared for him and educated him, and they lived each in his own cell a holy and an ascetic life.
Then Helier made a little garden, marking off with a rod a part which he gave to the rabbits to enter as they would. Moreover by his prayers he restored sight to the eyes of a blind child and cured a woman of an issue of blood. Also he saved a man into whose mouth a snake had entered while he slept.
But Sigebard, hearing of these miracles, ascribed them to magic arts and set about to slay Cunibert, hoping thus to win back his own son.
And an angel came to Cunibert in his sleep and warned him. Nevertheless the servants of Sigebard fell upon him and struck off his head. And Helier buried him in the church.
On the night of the day when he buried Cunibert, Helier went forth weeping, distraught and unutterably sad. For six days through pathless woods he wandered from his country, and so came to the city of Therouanne, weary, hungry and full of sorrow. There he rested for two weeks in the house of a widow, who was a servant of God, and thence went to the church of Our Lady nearby where he glorified God by the mortification of his flesh.
For five years he lived there, cruel to his body. For food he had nought but bread and wild herbs. For drink, water. Next to his skin he wore a shirt of goat's hair and his bed was a rude log. One day, after praying to God, he restored a dead child to life. Fearful of the adulation of the people, he rejoiced when in an ecstacy an angel appeared to him and told him to go to Nanteuil in Normandy, where Saint Marculf was. And thither he went, though sore tempted by the Devil to stay.
And on his way, hard by the river Canche, he miraculously purified a spring of water, which, unto this day is called the Fount of Saint Helier.
Then passing through the land of Ponthieu, he arrived in Normandy and sought for Saint Marculf and found him near Le Val Dun on a hill where was a church dedicated to Our Lady. And in this church on Christmas day, was Helier baptized by Saint Marculf.
Thereafter for the space of three months Helier abode with Marculf in Nanteuil, serving God. And at the beginning of the fourth month Marculf sent Helier to Gersut to live there as a hermit, and he gave him Romard as a companion to go with him to that place.
Then Romard and Helier came to a place called Genest, where from in a small craft, with the help of God, they reached the Island of Gersut, and found there not more than thirty people of both sexes. There were there many rocks, whereof on one was a lame man named Anchetil, whom Helier healed with his benediction. The marks of this miracle are there to this day.
There was also another rock, surrounded by the sea on both sides. And on it Helier cut a hollow in the rock and prepared his couch, one with neither purple nor down. Herein he took his rest as long as he lived. Three years after his arrival, he was visited by Saint Marculf, who found him so weak and so emaciated by fasting and long vigils that he scarce could recognise him. And the two Saints when they met, embraced one another weeping, the tears running down their cheeks.
Whilst Marculf was yet in the Island there came a fleet of thirty vessels from the Orkney Islands, and Romard, seeing them, came in haste to Helier, saying: " Father. The robbers and ruffians are upon us." Then Helier raising his head and opening his weary eyes, beheld the robber boats approaching. Seeking Marculf he took counsel with him and Marculf said " We will meet them with the weapons of God." And so the two Saints prostrated themselves and implored the Almighty to save them and all the people from the robbers. And the wrath of God fell upon the ruffians so that they slew one another. Of three thousand of them none survived to tell the tale. Then rose from their prayer the Saints and glorified God, in that he had delivered them out of the hands of their enemies.
Three days after their deliverance, Marculf and Romard parted from Helier, whom they were to see no more in this world.
But Helier with his companion remained there serving God day and night. He took food but once a week, mortifying his body in order to serve God the more freely. Thus he became so weak that he could not walk daily, further than one might cast a stone.
When he had been 15 years in this Island Our Lord Jesus Christ appeared unto him and said:
- "Three days hence, O Beloved, shalt thou leave this world with a martyr's crown and come unto me."
And the next morning when his companion came over to visit him, he told him what had passed. Then was the companion filled with grief and affliction. Now it chanced on the next day when the wind blew in from the south, that a fleet of ships arrived and a great number of Vandals came from out of the ships and occupied all the Island. And Helier through weakness, but not through fear, lay a-hiding. Then, by God's will, the cries of birds led the Vandals to discover him and one of them, thinking him to be demented, drew his sword and strake off his head. In evidence whereof drops of blood may still be seen upon the rock and will ever remain thereon till the end of time. As for the Vandals, they departed out of the Island and went their way in great fear.
Then came the companion of Helier towards the rock and behold, his beheaded master had borne his severed head in his own hands two hundred paces to a certain land. There, in witness of the wonders worked by God for his master, he gave praise to One Who in such wise glorifies His Saints.
Summary by Norman Rybot
- The account of the translation or removal of the Saint's body given in the ancient manuscript is clearly of an unreliable nature. It states that the body was carried to certain places in Belgium, now untraceable. I am of opinion, however, that the localities in Brittany and Normandy where the memory of the Saint is still preserved, are very probably the places to which the relics originally went. In this opinion I have the support of Claude Chalmot, who states in his "Shorter Menology of the Cistertian Order" that "the sacred relics of Saint Helier are preserved and honoured religiously in the chapel of the Abbey of Beaubec in the Diocese of Rouen".
- In order to arrive at the historic worth of this "Life of Saint Helier", we may compare it with the "Life of Saint Marculf," which is considered by the Bollandists to have been written prior to AD 640.
- In this "Life" Helier is called Eletus or Helibertus, while Jersey is called Agnus or Agna. Both "Lives" are in agreement on certain points. For example, they both aver that the population of the Island consisted of thirty persons of both sexes.
- In the "Life of Saint Marculf " the first invaders are called Saxons. Their attack is thus described:
- "Seeing so small a number preparing to oppose them, the invaders with loud cries began to disembark, confident that at the first thrust of their weapons the islanders would flee away. Some of them had already landed on the sands. The others were still in the boats when a sudden squall arose and drove them back into the open sea. There, the boats caught in a whirlwind and being unmanageable, broke the one with the other into violent collisions and so perished. Seeing that God was fighting for them at Marculf's intercession, the Islanders took heart and assailed those who had come ashore, slaughtering them one and all."
- The "Life of Saint Marculf " also affords information with regard to the principal dates in the life of Saint Helier and leads us to assume that Helier was born between 510 and 520, that he came to Jersey between 535 and 545 and that he was killed between 550 and 560.
- The day assigned for his commemoration is July 16th.