Saint of the Servants: The Humble Heroism of St. Zita

St. Zita’s devout life exemplifies how our daily duties can be a path to heavenly glory.

Arnould de Vuez, “St. Zita,” 1696
Arnould de Vuez, “St. Zita,” 1696 (photo: Public Domain)

She woke up and rose from the bare floor of the servants’ quarters. Her fellow servants were all still sleeping. Brother Sun had yet to ascend over the surrounding Tuscan hills. She donned herself, as always, in the plainest of clothes which amounted to little more than rags. Zita herself was a Third Order Franciscan and habitually wore her plain clothes as nobly as a friar or a nun wearing the habit. She went on to recite prayers she knew by heart next to candlelight. 

The sky had turned a soft pink by the time she’d quietly stepped out of the Fatinelli household. She walked down the street, barefoot as always, to the nearby Church of San Frediano. The large church’s slanted roof was elevated at the center above the nave like a typical Roman basilica. The façade’s golden mosaic of Christ ascending to Heaven, with his apostles looking up from beneath, towered above the neighboring buildings of the city-state of Lucca like a snow-capped peak. 

Zita entered the church and dipped her finger in the large white baptismal font with the story of Moses chiseled at the basin and she crossed herself. She filed past the Roman arches at the edges of the nave and made her way toward the altar. 

White marble surrounded her while she patiently waited. Others began entering the church and sparsely surrounded her. Hers was a face that had long ago become familiar to the regulars and the priests of this particular church.

Her day, reflective of a lifetime of routine, had thus begun. 

Zita had been born to a peasant family in the Tuscan village of Monte Sagrati. Her parents, Giovanni and Buonissima Lombardo, were both pious and had taught their children piety. It was her mother who’d taught her that all honest work, as well as trials, came from God. Her older sister had gone on to become a Cistercian nun. She even had a maternal uncle, Graziano, who’d lived out his years as a hermit who’d been regarded as a saint by those who knew him. 

She was sent off to work for the Fatinelli household, some miles away in Lucca, when she was 12 years old. The Fatinelli family was wealthy. Her family needed money. Signora Fatinelli even allowed the girl to have a year of schooling before she went on to work full-time as a maid.

Young Zita remembered what her mother had taught about work. She treated each of her employers’ instructions as though they’d been given to her by God himself and performed each of her ordinary tasks with extraordinary diligence. Several of her fellow maids, figuring that they were being shown up, despised her for this. They’d said that her piety was mere posturing. They complained to the Fatinellis about her whenever they’d found any excuse to, including those times when that excuse just happened to be that she was giving away bread that belonged to the household. 

She never complained about the scorn from her fellow servants. She never complained about the abuse from her employers who’d kept on receiving complaints about her from her fellow servants. Instead, she cheerfully carried on, day after day, year after year, with those tasks which had calcified into her routine. A third of her wages she gave to support her family in Monte Sagratti. Another third she gave away to those in need. It was even said that the angels helped her out whenever she’d gotten herself into a pinch.

Zita’s piety eventually came to be recognized as sincere indeed. A mere show can only be put on for so long, after all. Her employers’ and fellow servants’ attitudes toward her softened considerably over the years. The Fatinellis eventually considered Zita to be a dear friend, rather than just an employee, trusting her enough to put her in charge of all of the household servants. A living saint’s presence can do much to soften the hearts of those in their vicinity over time.

Zita never used the authority given to her as an excuse to exact any sort of revenge on those who’d once scornfully tormented her. She was known to be particularly strict only when it regarded the introduction of vice into the household. 

She carried on, day after day, long enough to nurse old Signora Fatinelli on her deathbed, long enough to see Pagano, whom she’d helped to raise as a child, go on to become the head of the family. She never got married. 

Mass came to an end. Zita crossed herself as the priest dismissed them in Latin.

The birds sang for Zita as she returned home that morning just as they once had sung, just some decades earlier, for Sts. Francis and Clare, her seraphic father and mother. In truth, the birds sing for all of us. Whether we hear them is only a matter of our willingness to listen.

The other maids were all wide awake by the time Zita had returned to the Fatinelli house. “A servant is not holy if she is not busy,” she reminded them. “Laziness in people of our position is fake holiness.”

She saw to it that the other maids were all assigned their chores and that those chores were done. The maids then scattered about the house like working ants. Floors were scrubbed. Food was cooked. The many needs of the children were seen to. Dirty clothes were washed and dried. Beds were made. The flowers of the garden were tended to. Goods were shopped for and then stored away. Zita recited prayers she knew by heart as she did her chores.

The day’s work was done to her satisfaction in due time. Zita’s satisfaction could be met only if a chore were done as though it were done for God himself. Zita’s fellow maids were dismissed and went about at leisure. Brother Sun, having tasks of his own to complete, had begun sinking behind the westward hills.

Zita entered the kitchen. The fumes made her cough. She picked up whatever extra bread she found. The Fatinellis had ceased to mind that she did this quite some years ago. They’d even allocated an isolated room in the house for her to use at her discretion, knowing full well that she’d be offering shelter for the night to strangers in dire enough need of one. She slipped out of the house once again.

Hers was a face that had long ago become familiar to the poor and sick in Lucca. They’d taken this approaching figure of a woman, somewhat small in stature, to be that of an angel in disguise who’d come to feed and nurse them. The sufferings of the poor and sick and imprisoned reminded her very much of the many sufferings which Christ himself had endured. Sister Moon and her surrounding stars silently witnessed from above as she walked about Lucca’s twisting streets, which were the very bowels of this walled city, handing out bread to the denizens who’d otherwise starve for the night.

Zita finally returned to the Fatinelli house for the night. Much of the rest of her night was spent in prayer before she finally retired. 

Her motions of this particular day much resembled those of her day before. They would much resemble Zita’s motions the very next day. That was all right. A lifetime’s worth of seemingly recurring days had drawn her ever nearer to God, had taken her further along on a pilgrim journey, an interior journey, than most any of the day’s renowned explorers would have ever dared to venture on any physical journey. She knew what so few of the princes could grasp: that any day spent in the Lord’s presence was indeed a day in full. 

St. Zita died peacefully, in the Fatinelli house, on April 27, 1272. She had worked for the family for 48 years by the time of her death. Her fame had grown so rapidly that in Dante’s Inferno, which was composed only a few decades after her death, the city of Lucca was simply referred to as “Santa Zita.” Her body was exhumed in 1580 and was discovered to still be incorrupt three centuries after her passing. It lies in rest at the Church of San Frediano to this very day. She was canonized in 1696 by Pope Innocent XII. She is the patron of housekeepers, domestic workers, servers and lost keys.

St. Zita, pray for us!