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 given
by Fra Angelo da San Severino 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 took the extraordinary form of physical
torment; at other times, she was overcome by great depression—even
to the point where she considered taking her own life. Dedication to prayer
and absolute confidence in the will of God were her encouragement and consolation
through 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
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 the 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.