Numbered among the many Augustinian women of history distinguished for holiness is the fifteenth-century lay tertiary, Blessed Helen of Udine.
Born Helen Valentini in 1396 in northeastern Italy, at the age of eighteen she married Antonio Cavalcanti, a Florentine nobleman, with whom she enjoyed twenty-seven years of married life. Together they raised six children, three boys and three girls, in a rather ordinary, happy, Christian household.
The sudden death of Antonio in 1441 came as a great blow to Helen. In her grief she cut off her hair and placed it, along with her jewels, in his coffin, saying: ‘These I wore for love of you; take them to the grave with you.”
After Antonio’s death, and in response to a sermon she heard by Fra Angelo da San Servino at the Augustinian church of Santa Lucia in Udine, Helen decided to become a tertiary of the Augustinian Order. In fact, she was the very first member of the Third Order in the city. For a while she continued to live in her own house, but after some time she went to live with her sister who was also a tertiary of the Order.
Helen’s years as a widow were marked by great devotion to prayer and penance, works of charity toward the poor, and the patient endurance of physical illness and spiritual trials. The more her ambition for Christian perfection increased, the more she became aware of the force of temptation in her life. At times this temptation tool the extraordinary form of physical torment; at other times, she was overcome by great depression — even to the point were she considered taking her own life. Dedication to prayer and absolute confidence in the will of God were her encouragement and consolation though all of this.
Grave illness kept Helen confined to bed for the last three years of her life. It did not, however, limit her exercise of devotion or penance for herself and for others. Her bed was made of stones, which she covered with a bit of straw only at the insistence of other members of the tertiary community.
On the day of her death, Mass was celebrated in Helen’s room, and friars from the nearby monastery came to assist her in praying the psalms and the prayers for the dying. Helen died on Saturday night, 23 April 1458, at the age of sixty-two. She was buried in the Augustinian church of Saint Lucy, but during suppression of religious houses in the nineteenth century her body was moved to the cathedral of Udine.
Blessed Helen is commemorated by the Augustinian Family on 23 April.
Rotelle, John, Book of Augustinian Saints, Augustinian Press 2000
Blessed Helen of Udine by Mario Ferrari, Rome, Italy.