The story of Helier's 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The answer lies in the legend surrounding his death. Helier lived the solitary life of a hermit on an offshore islet from which he could see Viking invaders in time to warn islanders to hide in a place of safety. One day a group of raiders caught Helier and beheaded him. Helier picked up his head and walked ashore.
His body was discovered on the beach still clutching his head in his hands, by a companion, Saint Romard. He placed the body 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.
From The Town of St Helier by Edmund Toulmin Nicolle
- "Saint Helerius was born at Tongres, the son of a Pagan. Early converted to Christianity he became a zealous missionary under Saint Marculf, whose name is intimately connected with the conversion of these Islands to Christianity. Many are the legends attached to the early life of St Helier. It is related how in early youth he was struck with paralysis and how Saint Cunibert cured him on condition that he should give himself up to GOd, how having grown to manhood he became a recluse and amused himself by gardening, but the hares got amongst his vegetables and made havoc thereof. So one day the Saint walked out with his cross in his hand and marked off a plot of his ground for the exclusive use of those wicked hares. Here he notified they might feast, beyond the limits they should respect his vegetables. No hare, it is related, ever over-stepped the boundary. But hares were liable to be hunted, and one day a bold sportsman leapt over the line of demarcation on horseback. As he leapt the fence a bough of a tree caught his eye and blinded him. He was now at the mercy of the Saint. The merciful Helerious made a sign with the cross and the eye was restored.
- "It was on the recommendation of Saint Marculf that Helerius visited Jersey. The population, it is said, only numbered then thirty souls. The Saint chose as his habitation, so the legend goes, a rock which was surrounded by the sea at high tide and communicated with the land by a natural causeway. There it is related he caused to be constructed the interesting cell which we know today as The Hermitage. SUch is the tradition handed down to us. The style of the masonry of this building and its nature hardly seem to belong to so ancient a period as that of the real Saint. It is more likely to be an oratory erected in memory of the martyred Saint at some later period in connection with the famous Abbey of St Helier.
- "Saint Helier gave himself up to his religious duties but the times were wicked. Sea rovers were abroad and unhappily they came to Jersey. As they were landing the Saint stretched out his hand and forthwith their ships were all blown out to sea. Then they fought against each other; but still enough were left to effect a landing and to decapitate poor Helerious. So the legend runs. After this begins the monkish history of his dead body, so mysterious that perhaps it is better not to attempt to unravel it.
- "Saint Marculf, we are told, in memory of this holy man founded a monastery near the Hermitage on the Islet, where Elizabeth Castle now stands, and in proximity to which was destined to congregate that population that had by then taken strong root in the soil and from which was to arise the Town of St Helier."