Zita and the Maids of Chicago

Last Thursday, our class heard a talk from Professor Kathleen Cummings of Notre Dame on American sainthood and the canonization of the first American saint, Frances Xavier Cabrini. In examining what appeal a specific saint may have to a community, I’ve looked at Saint Zita, and what her appeal may have been to Chicago Catholics around 1900.

Saint Zita, who lived roughly from 1212 to 1272 (Image: This Cross I Embrace)

There has never been a St. Zita’s parish in Chicago. The Italian saint doesn’t appear to have had any community or association in the city. There are no Catholic institutions named after her in Chicago. The Italians of the city had plenty of other saints to look to, and it is hard to show a definitive connection between Chicago and Saint Zita, though more intensive research could likely yield better results. Yet I think that Saint Zita could have, and perhaps was, a very important saint for many Chicago Catholics around the dawn of the twentieth century.

Zita lived in thirteenth century Italy, not far from the city of Lucca in Tuscany. Born around 1212, at the age of 12 she became a servant in the household of the Fatinelli’s, a local wealthy family. The work was hard, the rewards minimal, and expectations low. Zita was pious and devout through her time in service of the Fatinelli’s, and remained a paragon of virtue and generosity despite her humble position. Zita was said to be a symbol of charity and kindness throughout Lucca, though she was treated poorly by other servants who shunned her apparent devotion and work ethic. Through patience and compassion, even her enemies were won over. Upon her death in 1272, Zita was respected and worshipped as a local saint within Lucca. Canonized by Pope Innocent XII in 1696, Zita is worshipped as the patron saint of maids and domestic servants.

This fact drew me to Zita. Although there does not appear to have been something as obvious as a parish named in her honor, Zita could have had a huge appeal to Chicago’s Catholics nonetheless. A Mother Jones report states that the 1870 US Census shows that of all women employed, 52% were employed in “domestic and personal service”. Especially for immigrants, domestic work was often the only option for women seeking employment in American cities. Maids, cooks, nannies were all needed in large numbers by wealthier middle-class and upper-class families, and many women worked tirelessly in these occupations for decades in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes that in 1870, “one in five Chicago households employed domestic workers, who accounted for 60 percent of the city’s wage-earning women.” These servants worked difficult jobs for modest pay, and were typically young single women from immigrant communities willing to work long hours at a low status job.

Irish Servant Humor, 1861

Immigrant servants were not necessarily well-regarded (Image from Harper’s Weekly in 1861, Source: American History USA)

Chicago’s domestic service industry was huge, and undoubtedly large numbers of these Irish, German, and Polish servants were Catholic. Saint Zita would have been a good spiritual figure to invoke for many of these hard-working Catholic girls, as her devotion to God saw her through a life of challenging work without sacrificing her kindness or faith. There is a question of how well-known Zita would have been to these Catholic maids and workers. Granted, Zita is an Italian saint and not one of the more well-known ones at that. The Italians were not as prominent in domestic service as the English-speaking Irish were, and the Irish may not have known too much about the patron of maids. However, the fact that a Chicago Tribune piece from January 1877 tells the story of Saint Zita’s life indicates that there were some in Chicago’s popular media who knew of her. It also seems possible that priests preaching to tired masses of servants would have reminded them that they face the same struggle faced by Zita. Furthermore – if the library of St. Ignatius College is to be any indication – we should note that in their limited collection of works on the saints, the Jesuits took the effort to purchase a biography of Saint Zita. It would not be right to say Saint Zita was an immensely popular saint for Chicago’s Catholic servants, but it seems more than likely that she was known to a good many at the time.

After World War One, European women were gradually replaced by African-American workers in the domestic service field. In 1900, 30% of domestic servants in Chicago were African-American, and these numbers would grow sharply over the next few decades as white European immigrants moved out of the industry. Perhaps as the domestic service field became less heavily dominated by Catholic immigrants, Saint Zita was invoked less frequently. Her popularity certainly never reached the levels of Kostka or Patrick, and in an American society that is less reliant on domestic service, Zita likely will never be a well-known figure.

However, Saint Zita stood out to me though as a saint that would have been a great figure for the countless domestic servants and maids of urban Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As the patron saint of a field so well-represented by Catholic immigrants, Zita would have had a lot to offer. The struggles she faced in the thirteenth century were very much the same problems being faced by Irish women in nineteenth century Chicago. Though her legacy may be hard to find, Zita seems a perfect saint for this Catholic group on the periphery, one in need of a figure to look up to. If her life was to be any example, Catholic servants could take heart knowing that lowly Zita would long be glorified and remembered. Though she did not have a life rich in comfort, her life was not lacking in meaning or satisfaction, and she clearly provided inspiration for those around her. Zita provides a good example that material wealth and position are not always the best ways of defining one’s life.

The Basilica of San Frediano, Zita’s shrine and resting place in Lucca (Image: Wikipedia)

For more information on domestic servants in Chicago from the Encyclopedia of Chicago, click here, and for information on Saint Zita, click here.


One thought on “Zita and the Maids of Chicago

  1. Pingback: Saints | Ramonat Seminar 2015

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