Major highlights in the life of the Servant of God:
9 May 1892: Birth of Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma at Villa Pianore, near Lucca (Italy)
April 1899: First stay at the monastery of Sainte-Cécile de Solesmes (France)
September 1903 – July 1908: Schooling at the Visitandines of Zangberg, Upper Bavaria
February to July 1909: Stay at the monastery of Sainte-Cécile (Isle of Wight)
24 June 1910: Zita visits Pope Pius X who predicts she will marry the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne
13 June 1911: Zita is engaged to marry the Archduke Charles I, great-nephew of Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria.
21 October 1911: Married in Schwarzau (Austria)
22 November 1912: Birth of Archduke Otto (who died in July 2011).
Charles and Zita would ultimately have eight children (five boys and three girls)
21 November 1916: Charles and Zita’s accession to the throne of Austria
30 December 1916: Coronation of the young sovereigns in Budapest, as King and Queen of Hungary
9 November 1918: End of World War I
11 November 1918: Charles’ renouncement of State affairs (but does not abdicate).
24 March 1919: The Imperial couple goes into exile in Switzerland
20 October 1921: Zita accompanies her husband for the second time in an attempt to restore the monarchy in Hungary, but to no avail.
19 November 1921: The Imperial couple settles in Funchal (near Madeira, Portugal)
1st April 1922: Charles dies and returns to God
19 May 1922: Zita arrives in Spain
31 May 1922: Birth of Archduchess Elisabeth
August 1922: The family moves to Lekeitio in the Basque Country
24 May 1926: Zita takes Rite of Final Oblation at Sainte-Cécile de Solesmes (France)
20 November 1930: Archduke Otto comes of age
September 1929 - May 1940: The family moves to Belgium
10 May 1940: The family flees to France, then Spain, and after that to Portugal, then onwards to the United States
1940 - 1948: The family moves to Quebec, Canada
1946 - 1948: The Empress goes on tour to raise funds for war-ravaged Austrian and Hungarian families
December 1948: Zita settles into Tuxedo Park, near New York
11 July 1949: Diocesan process opens for the beatification of Charles I of Austria
1953 - 1959: Zita returns to Luxembourg to look after her aging mother
1962: Zita settles in Zizers, Canton Grisons, Switzerland, at the nursing home run by the Sisters of St John (Johannesstift)
13 November 1982: Zita makes a triumphant return to Vienna
April-May 1985: Last trip to Solesmes (France)
February 1989: Zita’s health deteriorates
14 March 1989: Zita dies and returns to God
3 October 2004: Beatification in Rome of the Blessed Charles I of Austria
20 January 2009: Founding of the Association for the Beatification and Canonization of Empress Zita, the Servant of God, wife and mother
10 December 2009: Mgr Yves Le Saux, Bishop of Le Mans (France), opens the diocesan process for the beatification of Zita, Servant of God, wife and mother.
Summary of the life of Empress Zita, Servant of God
Her early years:
Zita of Bourbon-Parma was born on 9 May 1892 at the Villa Pianore, in the Italian province of Lucca, an estate located between Pietrasanta and Viareggio. She is the seventeenth child of Robert I of Parma and his second wife, the Infanta Maria-Antonia of Portugal, daughter of King Michael I, last monarch of Portugal, who later lost his throne and settled in Austria.
Her father, Robert I of Parma, was the last reigning duke of the Duchy of Parma. However, when he was still a child, he lost his throne as a result of the movements for Italian Unification.
Events like these would leave an indelible mark on the Bourbon-Parma family.
Robert I of Parma went on to father 24 children, twelve of which were born during his second marriage to Maria-Antonia of Portugal. From his first marriage, three children died in infancy and six were declared mentally disabled. The latter, however, were greatly supported and cherished by the other siblings.
This large family spent most of the year in Lower Austria at the castle in Schwarzau and winters at the Villa Pianore. Like all of her brothers and sisters, Zita learned to speak French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Her father, however, always considered himself a French Prince. He was the son of Louise of Bourbon, sister of the Count of Chambord and granddaughter of King Charles X. This explains why the Castle at Chambord was their vacation place in France.
At the age of 10, Zita was sent to a boarding school at Zangberg, in Upper Bavaria, run by the Visitation Sisters. She would eventually spend 5 years there. Her father died in 1907. Then, in 1909, together with her sister Francesca, she spent some time with the Benedictine monks of Solesmes, who were forced to flee France in 1901 and by then had occupied an old home transformed into a monastery on the Isle of Wight.
The children of the Duke and Duchess of Parma were all raised as devout Roman Catholics who regularly undertook good works for the poor.
It was during one of her many stays in Austria during her youth that Zita met her cousin, the Archduke Charles I, great-nephew of Emperor Franz-Joseph. Charles’ grandmother, in fact, was Zita’s aunt since she and Zita’s mother were sisters. As children, the two cousins had many occasions to meet and spend time together but then their paths separated as each one pursued their education. They met again in 1909, at a time when Charles I was under pressure from his father to marry. Charles, indeed, was already second-in-line to the throne since his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had married morganatically and thus his children were excluded from the throne.
On 13 June 1911, their engagement ceremony was held in the chapel of the Villa Pianore. A few months later, Zita traveled to Rome with her mother to receive the blessings of Pope Pius X. At that time, she was well aware of the fate of the Austrian Empire and the challenges that lay ahead to maintain the unity of the monarchy.
Charles and Zita were married at the Schwarzau Castle on 21 October 1911. The marriage was celebrated by the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Bisletti.
Their first child, Otto, was born on 20 November 1912. He is the eldest of eight children.
The war and accession to the throne:
As second-in-line to the throne, Charles, who was 24 years old at the time, assumed he would come to the throne in about twenty years. Hence, he and his wife had all the time in the world to prepare for this event.
All of that changed on 28 June 1914, when the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian Nationalists during a trip to Bosnia Herzegovina. Immediately, this triggered a spiraling of events in that region of Europe already in the throes of persistent tensions. In no time, the advocates of war would find themselves pitted against those in favor of preserving the peace at all costs. Charles, somehow, was kept on the sidelines of any decision-making.
By the month of August, Europe was officially at war but the objectives were not the same for all the belligerent parties involved. Archduke Charles was promoted to General of the Austrian army and sent to Tyrol. Zita, instead, along with her children moved into Schönbrunn Palace. Zita would spend a good portion of her days in the hospitals of Vienna. On a few occasions, she accompanied her husband to the front, namely to the Romanian front, where she spent long hours tending to the wounded.
This war was particularly cruel to Zita: her brothers, the Princes Felix and René joined the Austrian army, while the Princes Sixtus and Xavier enlisted in the Belgian army (since joining the French army was not yet an option).
For two years, Zita divided her time between raising her children and serving in hospitals, all the while taking care of the aging Old Emperor. Franz Joseph, in fact, passed away on 21 November 1916, at the age of 86. According to the Pragmatic Sanction, Charles I was proclaimed Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia, etc.
For the young monarchs, soon thereafter commenced a life of hardship and suffering, a situation they certainly had not planned on. Then, with a sense of foreboding that Hungary might secede, just when he needed all of his armed forces, Charles I was crowned King of Hungary on 30 December 1916. This would be the only moment of glory for the young couple; however, a glory that would soon mean surrendering to the divine will. Hence, the coronation celebrations were cut short because the newly proclaimed King had to leave for the front.
Always by his side, Zita was a staunch supporter of her husband. She accompanied him to the different provinces and to the front, as well as occupying herself with charitable works and hospital visits to the war-wounded. Moreover, Zita started to show a special interest in social policy. In fact, during his brief reign as Emperor, Charles would become the first monarch to create a Ministry of Social Affairs. He also would not rest until peace was found, even a separate peace treaty between France and England, negotiated with the help of Zita’s brothers, the Princes Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma. The initial peace plan was a long and complicated one: Austria-Hungary was allied to the Germans who wanted to continue the war, while Russia was on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, British generals hesitated to make peace with Austria, and France was speaking in too many voices. Pope Benedict XV himself appealed for peace among the belligerent parties. The only one who responded positively was Charles I. What’s more, during this time, Zita managed a personal achievement by stopping German plans for sending airplanes to bomb the home of the King and Queen of Belgium and helped spare the Cathedral at Reims.
In the end, every attempt at peace failed. So the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed on account of the declaration of independence by each of its components. The new Republic of German-Austria was proclaimed and the Emperor was asked to relinquish all of his powers, though he never abdicated. Then, with all of their children, Charles and Zita were forced to move on ---this time to Eckartsau--- which marked the beginning of a life of endless meanderings in exile. By March 1919, they would move to Switzerland. Two attempts were made, one in March and the other in October 1921, to restore the monarchy in Hungary. Both attempts ended in failure. This last attempt once again pushed the family into exile, even farther away and more removed from their Empire: to Funchal, on the island of Madeira (Portugal). Abandoned by everyone, they would live a life of poverty and hardship, with barely any financial resources even as Charles fell ill. Exhausted, but completely surrendering to God’s will, Charles died on April 1st, 1922. He was 34 years old.
Widowhood and continued exile
Empress Zita became a widow at the age of 30. She had seven children, and an eighth one on the way, the Archduchess Elisabeth, who was born two months after her husband’s funeral. Throughout her lifetime, Zita would wear mourning black in memory of Charles and out of fidelity to her beloved husband.
At one point, thanks to the intervention of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the conference of ambassadors allowed Empress Zita and her seven children to relocate to Spain, in particular to Lekeitio, in the Basque Country, where she lived for 6 years, in order to devote herself entirely to raising and educating her children. By 1929, so as to better prepare for the future of her children, she moved the entire family closer to Brussels, in particular to Steenokkerzeel, where several of the older siblings went to study at the University of Leuven. Zita kept up regular contacts with her loyal subjects and welcomed many to Belgium. However, in 1938, when Austria was annexed by the Nazi régime, repression befell all those who remained attached to the Imperial family. Once more, in May 1940, Empress Zita undertook another journey into exile after the invasion of Belgium by German troops. Crossing France, then Spain and Portugal, she and her children finally settled in Québec, the French-speaking province of Canada.
During this time, Zita and her family lived in dire poverty. Yet these difficult times would hardly quell her strong-willed spirit, nor would they stop her from going on tour in the U.S. and Canada, holding conferences to raise funds for war-ravaged Austria and Hungary. Similarly, her son, Otto, would do everything in his power to ensure the recognition of Austria as a country occupied by the Nazi régime and seek its independence.
Return to Europe
By 1952, with her children all grown up and the majority of them married, Zita would return to Europe in order to look after her aging mother, Maria-Antonia, who died at the age of 96. Subsequently, she settled in Zizers, Switzerland, located in the Grisons Canton. She would also organize a few long stays with the Benedictine monks of Solesmes (France), whom she knew so well. Three of her sisters, in fact, had become nuns at St. Cecilia’s Abbey and she had been an oblate of St Peter’s since 1926. At this point in time, much of her life would be divided between her children and grandchildren, some loyal friends who came to visit her often asking for advice, and the monastery at Solesmes (France).
Finally, in 1982, she was able to return to Austria when the Austrian authorities agreed that the Empress ---as a mere spouse---could not be affected by the laws on exile that involved the Hapsburg family. She was 90 years old. A most triumphant moment for her!
Though blessed with good health throughout her entire life, Zita’s condition began to falter. Little by little she would lose her eyesight and her last months were particularly painful, leaving her bedridden due to pneumonia. She was able to see her children one last time and died on 14 March 1989, at the age of 96.
Her funeral ceremony was a grandiose event. The Empress was buried in the Imperial crypt under the Capuchin Church, and her heart preserved at Muri Abbey, in Switzerland, where she lies in peace alongside her husband.
Zita’s husband, Charles I of Austria, was beatified on 3 October 2004 by Pope John-Paul II.