St Helier, Jersey's Patron Saint

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Saint Helier, a 6th century hermit, is patron saint of Jersey, and in particular of the town and parish of Saint Helier, the island’s capital.

Early years

The story of his life and time in Jersey is much disputed, and it is impossible to separate fact from legend, but the story goes that Helier was born to pagan parents in Tongeren (now in Belgium) after they had had difficulties conceiving a child. In desperation they turned to Saint Cunibert who advised them to pray to God and to promise to bring up an eventual child in the Christian faith. Their prayers having been answered, Helier was born, but his father eventually grew angry at the influence Cunibert exerted over his precocious son, who was already causing consternation with his youthful miracles. Helier’s father had Cunibert killed, whereupon Helier fled.

His wanderings led him through what is now the village of St Hellier in the département of Seine-Maritime in Normandy and eventually to the Cotentin where he sought retreat from the distractions of the world in the monastic community of Saint Marculf.

Jersey

He found that the community did not provide the quiet he required to devote himself fully to a life of contemplation. Marculf had received pleas from the few inhabitants of the island called Gersuy, or Agna, now called Jersey, which was all but depopulated due to repeated attacks by Vikings. The inhabitants requested someone to help them, and bring the gospel to them as they had no shepherd to guide them.

Marculf sent Helier, and a companion, Saint Romard, to Jersey where he found a small community of fishermen on the sand dunes where the modern town of St Helier was to develop. Helier settled on a tidal islet, nowadays known as the Hermitage Rock, next to the island now occupied by Elizabeth Castle. Romard would travel back and forth between the hermit on his rock and the fishing village.

From his vantage point on his rock, Helier could see the sails of approaching attackers and would signal to the shore, whereupon the inhabitants would scatter into the surrounding marshes, thereby frustrating the attackers’ bloodlust.

Healing miracle

Helier is remembered in Jersey for having brought Christianity to the island, but is better known in Normandy and Brittany as a healing saint. Besides the healing springs at St Hellier and Bréville, there is also a healing spring at Saint-Jouan des Guérets (Ille-et-Vilaine), where Helier’s name has been deformed by folk etymology to St Délier (délier meaning to untie in French, which may refer to the power to loosen the bonds of illness).

Helier is recorded as performing one healing miracle in Jersey, curing a lame man named Anquetil.

Raiding party

His prayers and the sign of the cross raised a storm that drove off a raiding party. Though Helier starved himself to ascetic weakness for 13 years, legend holds that he had the strength, when he was beheaded by attackers, to pick up his head and walk to shore.

According to legend, Romard discovered Helier’s body on the beach still clutching his head in his hands, placed it in a boat and set off for the French mainland. The boat, guided by the hand of God, arrived at Bréville-sur-mer, where a reputedly miraculous healing spring arose on the spot where Helier’s body rested overnight. A church was founded next to the spring, which is now topped by a statue and still attracts those seeking a cure.

Twentieth century historian the Rev George Balleine was critical of the story of St Helier, noting that "its chronology is absurd”.

St Helier was born, we are told 'after the death of wicked Queen Brunehild. when Childebert governed the Francs'. This must be Childebert III, who came to the throne in 693. But Helier became a disciple of St. Marculf. who died in 558 ; and 'according to one account he was buried by the famous eighth century Bishop Willebrod. In other words he was baptised 150 years before he was born, and buried, while still a young man, two hundred years later.

Churches

As well as in Jersey, churches dedicated to Helier can be found in Rennes, Beuzeville (Eure), Amécourt (Eure), Barentin (Seine-Maritime), Monhoudou (Sarthe). Evidence of veneration of the saint can be found in La Hague in the Cotentin at Querqueville and also at Omonville-la-Rogue where a 13th century mural in the church of St John the Baptist links Helier with Thomas Becket.

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