Saint Helier - Saint Hélyi - Saint Hélier

St Hélyi

Jersey Folk Lore

Every man who devoted his life to the propagation of the new faith was called a Saint. There were two kinds; the one known as a saint errant, and the other as an anchorite: the first founded priories and convents, and moved from place to place, preaching, teaching, and proselytising; the second buried himself from the world in some remote hermitage, intent only upon fasting and prayer. Jersey was converted by one of each - St. Marcoulf, and St. Helerius.

St. Marcoulf, the saint errant, was a man of action. Supposedly of noble birth, he was born at Bayeux about 483. Nothing is known of his boyhood. He left home at the age of twenty-eight and traversed the Cotentin peninsula, his fiery ardour and rigorous asceticism making converts wherever he went. Two years later, he arrived at Coutances and was ordained priest. Then came an exaltation of soul which drove him irresistibly towards solitude. He travelled to the farthest extremity of the Cotentin, and finally settled at a place called Nanteuil, in the midst of vast sand dunes. With the permission and assistance of King Childebert, he built a monastery here. The fame of the austere saint spread far and wide, and neophytes flocked to Nanteuil from all directions. One came from Belgium upon the first stage of a journey which was to end in a martyr's death. He was Helerius of Tongres.

It is with the lives of St. Marcoulf and St. Helerius that the ecclesiastical legends of Jersey begin. The biography of the latter, as recorded in the "Acta Sanctorum," is miraculous, rather than historical, and is valuable only in so far as it depicts the obvious hallucinations and popular beliefs of the period. The bald statement that he was a holy man who came to find solitude in Jersey, and that he lived upon a rock known as The Hermitage until he was murdered by marauding Norsemen, may be accepted as historical. What follows is legendary with a possible substratum of truth.

His father, Sigebert, was a noble of Tongres, and his mother, Lusigard, a Swabian. They were both pagans, and, for many years, they had no children. They consulted St. Cunebert, a missionary who had recently moved into the district, and who was credited with supernatural powers. "Let the offspring, if there be any be made over to God, and to me," he said. They promised and, in due time, a child was born. Shortly afterwards, St. Cunebert returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and reminded them of their promise, but they hesitated. In his seventh year, the child, who had, until then, been strong and healthy, was struck with paralysis. St. Cunebert agreed to cure him on condition that he be given to him as previously promised. He also named him Helerius, which means pity, because God, in his mercy, had restored him, and he made him a catechumen. The child grew up under the tuition of St. Cunebert and, even in his earlier years, his religious fervour astonished and impressed all with whom he came in contact. As he reached man's estate he performed various miracles, but none of them made the slightest impression upon his father. Indeed, the latter began to regret having given his son to St. Cunebert, so, in order to solve the problem, he had the Saint assassinated.

Horrified at his father's crime, Helerius left home and finally reached the town of Morins, where he lived several years in an abandoned chapel which he used as a hermitage. Such fame did his miracles bring him that his growing celebrity frightened him. Inspired by a dream, he left Morins, and walked for many days until he reached Nanteuil. Here, he placed himself at the disposal of St. Marcoulf, who forthwith baptised him, for this had not, as yet, been done.

Intent only upon starving and castigating the body that he might feed the soul, St. Helerius longed for a desert retreat. St. Marcoulf indicated the isle of Gersut, or Agna and instructed his faithful companion, St. Romard, to accompany the newly baptised saint thither. The anchorite could not have chosen a better spot for a hermitage, or a more savage one. The frequent incursions of the Norman pirates had made of the island a desert, in which only thirty people lived - people so cowed by their merciless and exacting pillagers, that they grovelled with terror at the approach of a stranger. St. Helerius chose a high rock at the extremity of a small islet as his habitation, and here he built a rough cell, the crumbling walls of which exist to this day. It was a place of rugged boulders rising abruptly from the sea, and joined to the islet by a narrow pathway of vraic covered rocks. It is known as the Hermitage. St. Romard went back to Nanteuil, but returned three months later, accompanied by St. Marcoulf, who wished to found a monastery in Jersey. They found St. Helerius attenuated by countless privations, and kept alive mainly by his blazing fanaticism.

One day, as the three saints stood upon the shore surrounded by a group of miserable natives, a black cloud hid the sun, the wind rose, and the leaping white caps assailed the jagged reefs to the south-east. Above the roar of the gale, there arose a sinister sound - the deep bellow of Scandinavian war songs, and, as they looked out upon the turbulent waters, they beheld many high-prowed ships of war, racing landward under full sail, and within them, the flash of spears. The chroniclers assert that the invaders numbered at least three thousand men. A crash of thunder heralded their landing as they leapt ashore and rushed forward to exterminate the men of God and their protégés.

With a cry of terror, the natives turned to fly. Impossible. As they gazed spell-bound at St. Marcoulf, something far stronger than their fear kept them rooted to the spot. They saw him make the sign of the cross - saw his extended arm pointing at the invaders, and then they heard and obeyed his stem command to rush forward to the assault. They were presumably unarmed, but, so terror-stricken were the pagan hordes at the bearing of their leader, that they ran back to their ships and put to sea. The gale quickly grew into a furious tempest which dispersed and engulfed many of their ships.

More than ever determined to found his monastery upon the isle, St. Marcoulf returned to Nanteuil to recruit a sufficient number of workmen. During his absence, those of the pirates who had not perished in the storm, returned, intent only upon revenge. At their coming, St. Romard hurried to the interior of the island to succour the natives, whilst St. Helerius remained in his cell. Here the marauders found, and slew him.

Some time later, St. Marcoulf returned to Jersey, and, having sent the remains of St. Helerius to a town on the Meuse, he began to build his monastery near the anchorite's hermitage, upon the islet where Elizabeth Castle now stands. He it was who first colonised the island, at first with neophytes from the Cotentin, and later with immigrants from the maritime districts of Western Armorica. This monastery, in common with most of those founded at this period, included a school to which children from many far countries were sent, and where the first seeds of intellectual, as well as religious development were sown. Although St. Helerius appeals more to the popular imagination, on account of his martyrdom, it is undoubtedly to St. Marcoulf that the honour of colonising and civilising Jersey belongs, The exact date and place of his death is unknown. Some chroniclers assert that he died in Jersey in 558, and others, that he ended his days at Nanteuil.

J.H. L'Amy Jersey Folk Lore 1927

St Hélyi

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