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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Patron Saint of Homemakers

Saint Zita shows us the good life cannot be bought.

St. Zita's Incorrupt Body
(Photo by Bradley Devlin)

By the time Saint Zita was born just outside Lucca in the early thirteenth century, the town of Lucca was already at least 1500 years old. The Etruscans founded the settlement around the third century B.C.; it obtained the status of a Roman colony by 180 B.C. before it was more fully incorporated into the empire. Not quite so much time has passed since St. Zita’s death in A.D. 1272. Yet, almost 800 years later, St. Zita’s body rests, incorrupt, in Lucca’s Basilica di San Frediano.

During our time in Tuscany, my girlfriend and I drove an hour from where we were staying to Lucca and spent the day touring the historic city center. We entered through a gate in the well-preserved Renaissance-era city walls that demarcate the ancient and modern. The erstwhile ramparts are now a public walking trail.

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We quickly made our way to the Basilica di San Frediano. The Basilica dates back to the sixth century when Saint Frediano, then the Bishop of Lucca, decided to build a church dedicated to Saint Vincent. The name of the Basilica changed later, after Frediano died and was laid to rest in the Basilica that he had built. Its age is reflected in its clear Romanesque style, maintained despite redesigns, expansions, and restorations through the middle ages.

The exterior of shining white marble and sloping roof top drew our eyes to a magnificent, golden mosaic of Christ’s ascension that was added to the church around the same time that Zita walked the streets of Lucca. 

The interior of the church smelled of damp stone with a slight sour smell presumably from the sun-baked tourists that cycle in throughout the day. It was much darker than the glistening outside might have suggested, obscuring some of the stonemasonry and brightly colored frescos that lined the aisle walls.

There was, however, one place where plenty of warm light seeped through: a chapel near the right side of the transept. There, we found a Renaissance chapel, the Chapel of St. Zita, and she was waiting for us inside. The chapel is separated from the rest of the church by iron bars with plexiglass backings, obviously added much later. As I crossed the threshold of the open gate into the chapel, the scent of the church disappeared. The smell of flowers, particularly roses, filled the air. “Does it smell like roses to you?” I asked. My girlfriend replied, “it does.”

We walked about the chapel completely alone, admiring Zita’s incorrupt body lying in a glass shrine along with the craftsmanship and paintings that surrounded her. Eventually, because we admittedly did not know much about Zita’s life, we sat down in a pew and researched her life.

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Because of her mother’s influence, Zita had developed a strong faith by the time she was sent to work as a servant to the Fatinelli family at twelve years old. For much of her adolescence, the Fatinelli family abused Zita, both physically and psychologically. Yet, her faith remained strong. She attended Mass daily, fasted regularly, and maintained a robust prayer life.

Despite her mistreatment, Zita remained diligent in her service to the Fatinelli family. The family grew to recognize and appreciate Zita’s virtue, and eventually promoted her to be one of the family’s chief servants. Despite having little of her own, Zita sacrificed her own wellbeing to give generously to the poor. After 48 years of service to the Fatinelli family, Zita died at the age of 60—a death she foretold herself. 

Zita’s death was met with great sadness by the Fatinelli family, whose love for Zita had only grown through her decades of service. A local cult to Zita arose almost immediately after her death, and the people of Lucca regularly prayed for her intercession. By the time she was canonized in 1696, over 150 miracles had been attributed to her intercession. She’s the patron saint of not only Lucca but domestic servants, homemakers, single laywomen, people ridiculed for their piety, and, get this, flowers.

Our jaws nearly hit the floor. I looked around the chapel. Not a single flower in sight, yet the floral scent wafting throughout the chapel was unmistakable. I got up and started literally sniffing around the chapel—the air-conditioning unit, all the vents, the corners, in front of the altar—trying to find the source of the smell. Surely, it must have been a bizarre sight for my girlfriend, and, thankfully, we were alone in the chapel. If this sixth century church was piping in the smell of flowers like a theme park, I wouldn’t have been upset; if anything, I thought it would be a wonderful technique to direct all the senses towards the holiness achieved by the woman resting in front of us. Yet I could not find the source.

After I snapped out of being a bloodhound, my eyes turned back to Zita. Atop her head, I then realized, lay a crown of roses. I sat back into the pew for prayer and reflection. I prayed for her intercession, that I may develop true virtue in adversity and to remain humble and diligent in my work. I also prayed for the groups of which she is the patroness—our underappreciated domestic workers, the homemakers regularly mocked by a culture that degrades the family, and the single laywomen that modern culture especially seeks to possess and objectify.

In reflecting on her life, my girlfriend and I discussed that, as far as saints go, she’s one of the more relatable ones. Of course, many miraculous things happened during her life and after, thanks to her intercession. But the core of Zita’s story is that by living faithfully—first to Christ, second to family and those in need, and third to other more worldly duties—Heaven is possible. Zita was not a cloistered nun receiving miraculous visions. She wasn’t a martyr, a theologian, or a pope. She was a servant who lived the good life, a life that developed virtue which she exercised.

There’s an impulse for young people, particularly young men and women on the right, to reduce a traditional, good life to material things. Some, myself included, call it trad pastiche. It’s abundantly apparent on social media—young women with ’50s-style hairdos and dresses in aprons showing off their homemaking skills, their two-oven kitchens, their chicken coops, their latest social media posts advertising partnership with all-natural baby food or cloth diaper companies.

As I’ve said before, babies are good. But corrupting the good life into merely a lifestyle, an aesthetic, or a kind of golden-age mimicry is a different but parallel kind of a commodification of the family instantly recognizable elsewhere in modern culture—abortion, surrogacy, and no-fault divorce to name a few.

Trad pastiche is not the good life. The good life is lived as Zita lived it: humbly fulfilling vocational duties with an eye not to likes or retweets, but sainthood.

As we exited the chapel and reentered the nave, we turned around and entered one more time. Both of us took a big breath in. It still smelled like roses.