A Lowly Saint, by E C Vansittart

detail of the frontispiece of 'Fatinellus de Fatinellis (1627–1719): Vita beatae Zitae virginis Lucensis, ex vetustissimo codice m.s. fidelitèr transumpta.Ferrara: Typographia Filoniana', 1688, showing Zita changing water into wine; Suor Isabella Piccini, born Elizabetta Piccini (Venice, 1644 - Venice, 29 April 1734); swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

“Life does not make us: we make life.”

When we speak of the “saints” we do not always remember how vast is that great army and from what varied conditions its ranks are drawn. The saints God has given to His Church are torches raised on high in the darkness of the ages to illumine those who are battling their way through this world, examples placed before timid souls to encourage them to follow in their steps by saying to themselves: “If such as these attained to so much holiness, why should I not be able to do likewise?”

There is one saint whose name is a household word in Italy, whose memory is perhaps more widely reverenced and deeply cherished than that of any other in the land, Santa Zita, the patroness of maid servants. Every girl going to service, every humble “contadina” in her cottage, knows and loves the pretty story of Saint Zita, and to an innumerable host of women of low degree her example has been an inspiring one, and they have faithfully striven to follow in her steps. Zita was born in the year 1218 at Soccisa, a village crowning a hill a few miles from the city of Lucca. The spot is still pointed out on which stood the house of her father – Giovanni Lombardo. He was a peasant, and her mother, Buonissima, the sister of a hermit named Graziano, who dwelt on a neighboring mountain where he had built a church with his own hands, beside erecting a shelter where travellers could pass the night safe from the wolves which then infested the mountains.

Her name is a corruption of Zitella (maid or virgin). Of her childhood we know little beyond the fact that she was one of a large family brought up carefully and religiously by God-fearing parents in a home which was a happy one save for its poverty, for the times were hard; wars devastated many parts of Italy, causing want and misery. With courage and determination far beyond her years, Zita succeeded in inducing her parents to consent to her seeking service in some opulent household where she would be able to earn something towards the maintenance of her family. So, driven by necessity to fly in the face of custom, which condemned the proceeding as little short of immoral – since to expose a maiden of twelve to the dangers and risks of the world was surely to sign her sentence of ruin – Giovanni tramped into Lucca in search of a situation where, though away from the paternal roof, his little daughter would be safe and well cared for. The wealthiest and most esteemed family in the town then was that of the Fatinelli, whose head drove a thriving trade in silk, and whose house stood close to the gate of Saint Frediano. The family itself was numerous, and the retinue of servants and dependents a large one, but to Giovanni’s joy, the mistress of the house consented to receive Zita. We can imagine how, during those last days at home, her mother would strive to instil wise and loving counsels into her little daughter’s mind, and how wonderful to the country-bred girl must have ap peared the medieval town with its fortified towers and encircling walls.

We are told that on their way to her new home she and her father went into the church of Saint Frediano to seek divine aid and protection in the new life she was about to enter on. Little could the lowly maiden have dreamed, as she knelt there, that one day her own body would rest near the grave of the holy Bishop whose name the church bore, and become a place of pilgrimage to many devout souls!

So sweet and modest was Zita’s appearance, so willing and ready was she to obey every behest, that from the first she won the affections of her masters. According to the pious custom of those times, she never failed to attend Mass at dawn in the neighboring church, thus sanctifying the day before her. Respectful towards her superiors, accepting reproof with good grace, patiently bearing injuries, not easily offended, ever acting the part of peace-maker, attentive in the performance of her duties, ready to help all, she closely followed in the steps of the Divine Master Who humbled Himself even to taking upon Him the form of a servant. It was not easy in those times for a young girl thrown among a number of rough men and varlets to keep herself absolutely pure and respected, but silence and prayer were Zita’s safe guard, and she passed unscathed through all dangers. Her mistress, who looked after the spiritual as well as the physical well-being of her dependents, let her at tend school for a year and then put her to be trained under Errichetta, a maid who had been in the house for several years. And now began Zita’s trials, for Errichetta, seeing how much she was making herself beloved by all, was seized by a consuming jealousy and did every thing in her power to bring her pupil into disfavor. Sometimes she broke things on purpose and gave it out it was the stupid “contadinella” who had done it; if anything were lost, she accused Zita of having given it to “her friends, the poor;” if Zita was given an order, she prevented her carrying it out, and as Zita never defended herself, hoping yet to win over Errichetta, the truth was not discovered, and the Signora Fatinelli, who had formed such a high estimate of the little maid, began to think she had been mistaken, accused her of careless ness and disobedience, and in the end Zita met with cold looks, harsh words, and severe reprimands. After this had gone on for several months Errichetta fell dangerously ill, and every one was surprised to find how well the stupid Zita did the work by herself. She tended her sick enemy lovingly and her mistress’ eyes were opened, for after a time Errichetta grew worse, and before her death confessed all she had done in the past, so that Zita stood out in her true light.

As long as her parents lived she was allowed to go home once a year for eight days. Her wages she divided into three portions: the first she sent to her parents; the second she kept for herself; the third she gave to the poor. As time went on she was more and more trusted; it was to her the poor had to apply when they came to the house for the remains of food and the money set aside for them, for her mistress left the distribution in her hands; she often reserved the greater portion of her own food in order to give it away to a needy one. With her mistress’ consent, she also visited the sick poor in their own homes and supplied their needs, for the Signora Fatinelli was very compassionate and charitable herself. There was a small room separated from the rest of the house and entered by a private door; this was placed at Zita’s disposal, and at night-fall she would, with her mistress’ permission, steal out and seek some poor fallen woman, lost on the public highway, and offer her supper. So persuasive was her manner that she would rarely meet with a refusal. Leading her guest to the simple chamber, which contained a bed, after providing her with food she would invite her to spend the night there, saying: “Sister, the hour is late, there are perils without; will you not sleep here?” Not knowing how to refuse, the strange guest would awkwardly accept, and Zita would remain in prayer by her side. More powerful than words were such prayers, and many an unhappy one would break down, and after relating her sad history, cry: “Oh! Zita! good Zita! pray for me!” Many an one, after spending the night in that quiet chamber and accompanying Zita to the early Mass at dawn at Saint Frediano, dated the commence ment of a new and better life from that day. Nor was it any wonder that her mistress had sufficient confidence in Zita to grant her such unusual privileges, for she knew the honor and safety of her house were secure in the keeping of her faithful handmaiden, whose presence therein was as that of an angel. Prayer was ever on Zita’s lips and in her heart; she practiced much penance and auster ity, went barefooted summer and winter, and rarely touched wine.

Years passed by and Signora Fatinelli died, nursed day and night by her faithful servant. On her death-bed she exacted from her husband a promise that he would put Zita at the head of the household, and Zita, on her side, promised never to leave the family. So it was done, the master bidding all the other servants take their orders from Zita, and the children – who had known her all their lives – were told to obey her in all things.

Still the years went by, and in 1260 Guglielmo Fatinelli died, and his son Pagano became the head of the house. He had grown up under Zita’s eyes and appreciated her saintliness, being himself a religious and much esteemed man, but he was quick-tempered and easily roused to anger, and Zita had often to bear the consequences of this, but, always ready to humble herself and always having a gentle answer on her lips, she exerted a wonderful influence over him.

In the Middle Ages fact and fiction, legend and truth, go hand in hand, and it is no wonder that to a soul so saintly as Zita, miracles should have been at tributed, nor would any account of her life be fair without a reference to the three which are so naively related in the old chronicles of the lives of the saints.

One morning, when it was her business to bake bread for the family, having gone as usual to the early Mass, she became so absorbed in her devotions that when the service was over the sacristan of the church locked her in by mistake. When at length Zita, full of compunction and distress, was able to hurry home, what was her amazement on going up to the kneading-trough to find the loaves all ready set and prepared, so that she had only to put them into the oven. She wondered whether it was one of her fellow servants who had done her this service to prevent her negligence being discovered, but on questioning them and finding they knew nothing of the matter, she came to the conclusion it must have been her kind mistress who, having got up early and not finding her at her work, had done it herself. Zita went to thank her and to ask her forgiveness, but she also knew nothing about it. When the bread was brought to table, it was found to be so delicious that all felt no human hands could have made it. “Happy the family,” then adds the chronicler, “who was thus fed by angels, and who had for their servant one assisted by ministering spirits from Paradise,” but Zita was distressed when they called her a “holy maid,” and knowing the wickedness of her own heart, humbled herself yet further.

In every beggar she saw the person of Christ Himself; the homeless to her represented Him for Whom there was no room in the inn; those shivering with cold the Divine Child in the stable at Bethlehem; in the hungry she saw Him Who fasted in the wilderness, in the thirsty she beheld Him Who was parched as He hung upon the Cross, and the remaining two miracles attributed to her were the outcome of her fervent charity.

On a hot summer’s day, when the land lay parched beneath the burning rays of the sun, Zita was returning from the daily distribution of the remnants of the household meal to the poor when a ragged pilgrim, weary and worn, dragged himself toward her, holding out his hand for alms. She looked at him, full of compassion, but had nothing left to give him, yet how could she send any one in such great need away empty-handed? Remembering the promise in the Gospel that even a cup of cold water, given in the name of Christ, shall in nowise miss its reward, she bade the pilgrim follow her to the neighboring well so that at least she might give him a draught of fresh water. Taking a copper jug, she let it down into the well, and in the act of holding it out to him that he might drink, made the sign of the cross over the water, praying meanwhile to her Divine Master that this lowliest of drinks might be blessed to the poor wayfarer. He approached his lips to the vessel when lo! the water was turned into wine! Never had the pilgrim tasted its like, as looking up into the face of the saint, who held it to his mouth, he took long draughts; no longer was he oppressed by heat or thirst as, full of gladness, he related to all that such choice and generous wine he had never tasted in his life before! The well was from that time known as “Santa Zita’s well,” and its water is still drunk in devotion to her. In former times pilgrims used to carry it home, and the sick were brought there for healing; now the crowds that flock thither are restricted to those who frequent the festival of Santa Zita, when the well is adorned with flowers, but the statue representing the pilgrim drinking from the jug held by Santa Zita, which surmounted the well-head, has long since disappeared.

One Christmas Eve, during a bitterly cold winter when the city of Lucca was fast bound in ice and snow, the Fatinelli family were assembled round a large fire. The solemn midnight Mass was about to be held at the church of San Frediano, and Zita, who had obtained permission to assist at it, was on the point of leaving the house when her master said: “Zita, how can you go out so lightly clad on such a night? We can hardly bear this terrible cold in the house, and you, who have fasted all day, are going out in that thin dress to remain long hours kneeling on the damp marbles of the church. I insist on your putting on my fur coat or staying at home.” Zita, who would on no account have missed the service of that night, obediently wrapped herself up in the warm garment, while her master added: “Remember, the fur is very valuable, so take care of it; I should be exceedingly angry if you were to lose it.” “Fear nothing, ‘padrone,'” replied Zita, “your cloak shall be well taken care of and safely restored to you.”

Scarcely had she entered the church when a poor half clad beggar, from whose lips issued a feeble plaint, approached her; his teeth chattered, and he was blue with cold. When Zita com passionately enquired what ailed him, for answer he put out his hand and touched the cloak she wore. Zita at once took it off and hung it on the beggar’s shoulders, saying: “Brother, wear this till the Office is over, after which you must return it to me, and I will take you home and warm you beside a good fire.” She then proceeded to the corner of the church where she was wont to worship, knelt down barefoot, rejoicing to suffer cold in company with the Divine Child of Bethlehem, and was soon so absorbed in the mysteries of that Holy Night that she was wrapt in ecstasy; but when all were leaving the church Zita could see no sign of the beggar, however much she sought him. “Oh, where has he gone?” she thought within herself. “I am afraid some one must have stolen the cloak from him and he dare not show himself to me. He looked such a good man, I am sure he is not a thief.” After search ing long in vain, she reluctantly set out for home, hoping her master would be indulgent, but on reaching the house, he, seeing her without the cloak, lost his temper, and reproved her with hard and bitter words, and though she implored his pardon, begging him not to give up hope of his property being yet restored, his ire would not be calmed, when suddenly on the stair before them appeared one who had indeed the face of the beggar, but whose aspect was so wondrously beautiful that merely to look upon him filled the heart with joy. On his arm he carried the borrowed cloak, which he returned to Zita, thanking her for the benefit conferred. She and her master turned simultaneously to speak to him, but he, like a flash of lightning, vanished from their sight. Zita humbly thanked God, and her master, repenting of his harshness towards his holy servant, related to all he met the miracle that had occurred, and thus it was said that Zita had been deemed worthy to clothe Christ Himself under the semblance of a beggar, and that he whom she had tried to befriend that night was not a man, but an angel. To commemorate this incident, the south door of the church of San Frediano was surnamed: “la porta dell’ Angelo,” and an ancient painting over it represented the miracle.

Henceforth Zita lived a life more angelic than human; her heart and soul were in another world, only her body remained on earth. As the years rolled by, she grew to esteem the things of this world less and less and to set all her affections on things above. Her lips often repeated Saint Paul’s words: “I desire to be loosed from this body and to be with Christ.” Death held no terrors for her; she rather regarded it as the entrance to life and the gate to her true home.

She was now sixty years of age, and the severity of her penitential life had enfeebled her frame; thus, when she was seized by a slight fever which lasted five days, she had no power of resistance, and she who had never yielded to the ills of the flesh had at last to give in and lie in her bed. During those days of enforced rest, no doubt she lived over all her life again: her childhood in the mountain village, the first days in her new home, the fifty years spent there, the favors vouch safed to her from above. She lay with the crucifix between her hands, her heart upifted to Him Whose image it bore. Tenderly nursed by her master’s family and by a few devout women who never left her little room, after the priest had administered to her the last sacred rites on the 27th of April, 1268, with her hands folded on her breast, her eyes up lifted to heaven, a smile on her lips, and without any sign of suffering, Zita passed to the better land.

Scarcely had she breathed her last, when a beautiful shining star appeared above Lucca. A great cry arose through out the city: “Let us go to San Frediano, Santa Zita is dead!” The Fatinelli family meanwhile made arrangements to honor their faithful servant by a funeral which should testify the esteem and gratitude with which they regarded her. The whole of the clergy of San Frediano went to the house to accompany the body to the church, which was crowded beyond description, as was the road leading to it, and many an one tried to steal a scrap of her clothing as she was borne along. Never had Lucca witnessed such a funeral, and miracles of healing were said to follow on touching her body.

In the church of San Frediano a chapel was dedicated to her and here she was buried, her tomb becoming a goal of pilgrimage; Emperors, Kings, Bishops, Cardinals, and Popes even coming to pray at her shrine. Nor was devotion to her confined to Lucca; throughout Italy churches were dedicated to her, and continue to be so to this day; the finest church in Palermo bears her name as do others in France, Spain, Portugal and Malta. Of late years a guild for maid servants, numbering thousands, has been established in her name all over Europe. The objects of this guild are to provide homes for servants temporarily out of place, to care for those who are aged or seized by incurable illness, and to promote terms of long service. Immense good has been effected by this guild.

Thirty years after her death, the greatest poet of Italy sufficiently distinguishes a burgher of Lucca from one of any other city by calling him “one of Santa Zita’s elders.”

Her festa is held annually at Lucca on April 27th, when her body is exposed and “the concourse is so great that armed soldiers have to be placed at the doors of the chapel to prevent a crush. Relics and lives of Santa Zita are sold in the Piazza, and her shrine is visited by every domestic servant in Lucca and its neighborhood, each offering a nosegay on the altar, which becomes piled with flowers, a curious and pretty sight.”

Surely in these days when domestic service is so much despised, this lowly saint speaks to us through the long years which have rolled by since her time. The life that Santa Zita led in the thirteenth century would neither be possible nor fitting in this twentieth century, but the motives which inspired her conduct and the virtues she cultivated are within the power of each one of us to attain, and every servant in her own individual place may be a Zita. To masters, also, her life brings its lesson: let them realize the blessing it is to a family to possess a truly conscientious, God-fearing servant, and remember that it is their duty to look after the spiritual as well as the temporal well-being of their dependents. God is no respector of persons; a lowly handmaid such as Zita was is greater in His sight than many a monarch on his throne, and through her He glorified the lesson of how He will exalt the humble and the meek, and raise the poor who steadfastly walk in the narrow road which leads to life.

MLA Citation

  • The Rosary Magazine, April 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 April 2018. Web. 26 September 2018. <>