St. Zita of Lucca, Italy, is the best-known patron of domestic servants. A less-known contemporary of Zita’s was St. Notburga of Austria, who is venerated in the Austrian Tyrol, Bavaria, Istria, Croatia and Slovenia. Many a church in these lands bears her name.
Notburga was born at Rattenberg-on-the-Inn, a town in the Austrian Tyrol not far to the east of Innsbruck. At the age of 18, this devout young woman of peasant stock entered the employment of Count Henry of Rattenberg as a member of his kitchen staff.
Notburga was always very solicitous of the poor. She cut down on her own food, especially on Friday, so as to be able to give something to those who knocked on the kitchen door. Discovering that the staff were used to discarding the abundant food left over from the Count’s table, she also began to hand this out, too. Count Henry’s mother was apparently unopposed to the charitable practice. But after the mother’s death Henry’s wife, Countess Ottilia, ordered that all leftovers be fed to the pigs. Dismayed, Notburga obeyed for a time, but then renewed her former policy. Unfortunately, the bossy Ottilia caught her red-handed one day and saw to it that she was fired.
The young woman then found employment with a farmer at nearby Eben. Her new job involved fieldwork. A charming legend connecting her with harvesting has become a popular tale among the children of Tyrol. Notburga made a practice of going to church for Sunday’s first vespers, and her employer had agreed not to interfere. One Saturday, however, when she was engaged in reaping, the vesper bell rang, indicating that Sunday had officially begun. The saint was getting ready to leave for church when the farmer ordered her to continue cutting the grain. She refused. With first vespers it was already Sunday, she said, and Christians do not work on Sunday. “But the weather might change and the crop be lost,” he insisted. “All right,” said the servant, “Let this sickle decide between us.” Thereupon she threw the shiny crescent-shaped tool up into the air, and there it hung like a new moon! The farmer yielded, and she went off to church.
Meanwhile, Count Henry was in a dejected state of mind. Bossy Ottilia had died and he had been suffering all sorts of misfortunes, which he was inclined to blame on his dismissal of Notburga. When he remarried, therefore, he asked her to return to his castle as housekeeper. She did so, and lived the rest of her life happily and holily in his employ.
When Notburga was dying, it is said, she urged him to continue taking care of the poor. Furthermore, she instructed him to place her corpse on a wagon drawn by two oxen, and to bury her wherever the oxen might stop in their tracks. Henry complied. The oxen stopped right in front of the chapel of St. Rupert at Eben, so there she was laid to rest.
Although long venerated in the western and Adriatic parts of the Austrian Empire, Notburga was never officially canonized. In March 1862, however, Pope Pius IX formally confirmed her ancient cult and her saintly title.
When St. Notburga is represented in paintings or sculptures, it is often with a sickle, either in her hand or hanging in the sky like a new moon.
–Father Robert F. McNamara