(Died 1278 AD)
As a dedicated house-servant, St. Zita quickly became a saint for domestic servants to invoke. Today domestic servants are fewer. Nonetheless, Zita still remains a saint for women engaged in the humdrum but necessary tasks of housekeeping, whether at home or at business.
Zita was born in Monte Sagrati, Italy. Her parents were devout Christians, and their devotion shaped the outlook of Zita and their other children.
In those days, Tuscany had no laws restricting child labor. Therefore, when she was only 12, Zita started her lifetime job as one of the house-servants of a man named Pagano di Fatinelli. He lived in the nearby city of Lucca and ran a prosperous weaving business.
Zita, despite her youth, brought with her a mature sense of piety. From the outset, she would rise at night to pray, and in early morning attend Mass before work-hours began. At first this annoyed her fellow-servants. She worked harder than was necessary, they thought. Her unwillingness to engage in coarse talk they took as criticism of themselves – as did her rejection of the free-and-easy attentions of the men-servants. For a time, her fellow domestics even persuaded Pagano to misjudge Zita. Meanwhile, the little girl went right ahead with her diligent work and her spiritual program, bearing with great patience these petty trials. Eventually, her perseverance won over the opposition. Her fellow employees came to respect her convictions, and Pagano and his wife counted themselves lucky to possess such a jewel of a servant.
Zita’s principle was that her work was a part of her service to God. “A servant is not good,” she used to say, “if she is not industrious: work-shy piety in people of our position is sham piety.”
Pagano eventually made her his official housekeeper. But, although he now respected her, he still had a violent temper, so she had to treat him carefully.
Once, for instance, housekeeper Zita dug very deeply into the family store of beans in order to help the poor. She told her mistress this, but both of them feared the reaction of Pagano when he found out. Wouldn’t you know it, he asked soon afterward for an inventory of the beans. He had decided to sell a large part of them. Zita asked God to take over, and her prayer was answered miraculously. When the store of beans was examined, there were still just as many as there had been before Zita had doled them out.
God helped this servant miraculously, or at least providentially, on other occasions as well. One cold Christmas Day when she set out for early Mass, Pagano threw his fur coat over her shoulders to keep her warm. At the same time, he warned her not to lose the coat. But at church Zita encountered a half-naked man trembling with cold. She loaned him the fur coat for the duration of the Mass. At the end of Mass, however, the man and coat both disappeared.
We may well imagine Pagano’s volcanic fury when his housekeeper humbly told him the story. However, just as they sat down to their Christmas dinner, a stranger appeared at the door and handed the coat back. When the boss and housekeeper tried to engage him in conversation, he disappeared. Nevertheless, both felt in their hearts that something wonderful had just happened. Ever since then, the people of Lucca have given the name “The Angel Door” to the church entrance where Zita loaned the freezing man Pagano’s fur coat.
Zita was far more upset by the veneration people tried to show her than by all the rages of Pagano. As she grew older, her domestic duties were reduced, but she simply spent more time visiting the sick and imprisoned. She prayed with special intensity for prisoners condemned to death.
Zita the housekeeper, now aged sixty, died peacefully on April 27, 1278. Her tomb-shrine is in the church of San Frediano where she had long attended daily Mass. On September 26, 1953, Pope Pius XII declared her the patron saint of domestic workers.
Housewives, out in the kitchen, that includes you, too!
–Father Robert F. McNamara