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The servant-saint who was held up as an example by her masters

The body of St Zita lies in the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy

You can see St Zita in the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, lying in a glass case. Her face is blackened and her skin paper-frail, yet she seems remarkably well-preserved for someone who died – what? – perhaps 200 years ago.

In fact, Zita lived between c1218 and 1278. Born at Monte Sagrati into a poor but extremely religious family – her elder sister became a Cistercian nun, and her uncle Graziano was a much revered hermit – Zita found work at 12 in Lucca, as a servant in the house of one Pagano di Fatinelli, who prospered from the manufacture of woollen and silk garments.

Zita’s exemplary industry at first stirred the enmity of the other domestics. “A servant is not good,” she would tell them, “if she is not industrious: workshy piety in people of our position is sham piety.”

As if that were not sufficiently irritating, she would reprove her fellow workers for their bad behaviour and foul language. And when a male servant made improper advances, Zita defended herself by scratching his face.

Gradually, though, her transparent goodness won over everyone in the household, including her master and mistress.
Several miracles were attributed to her, usually in connection with her concern for the poor. Thus, when she gave away her master’s food to feed the hungry, the victuals were unaccountably replaced.

Again, after she had excited Pagano’s fury by handing his fur coat to a beggar, a stranger – or was it an angel? – arrived to return it. Zita was also esteemed for her charity to the sick, and to prisoners. Her few free moments were spent in the church of San Frediano, where she was buried. Exhumed three centuries later in 1580, her corpse was discovered to be in excellent condition.

Employers held her up as a fine example to their servants, and canonisation followed in 1696. Among her specialities is finding lost keys.

Curiously, after Zita’s death in 1278 her cult became popular in England, on account of the many Lucchese merchants in London.
Devotion to St Sithes, as she was called, gradually spread across the country, from Cornwall to Northumberland. More than 50 15th-century representations of her are to be found in English churches.

Chapels were dedicated to Zita at St Benet Sherehog (destroyed in the Fire of London), and in Norwich cathedral; and an altar was consecrated to her in St Albans Abbey.

At Mells, in Somerset, she is depicted in stained glass, holding three loaves and a book. The church at Eagle, in Lincolnshire, claimed to possess some of her hair, along with her little toe. Once a year St Zita is paraded through the streets of Lucca. It is impossible to tell, however, whether she is missing a little toe.