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An Exclusive Interview with the Pope’s Female Gardener

Tiziana Baiocco tells us about her vocation and experience in working for Pope Francis.

Two kind little girls are playing with their dolls and taking a spin on the merry-go-round. They chat about their families.

“My mom is a dentist,” one girl says. “What about your mother?” “Mine works at the Vatican!” the other one exclaims. That’s what little Eleonora answers whenever someone asks about her mom, Tiziana Baiocco, and her mom’s job. Maybe Eleonora doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of “the Vatican,” but she understands that it plays a big part in her family’s life.

It’s no wonder because the responsibility goes way back to her great-grandfather Paolo, who worked on the Vatican Gardens in the early 1900s. (Read: A Tourist’s Guide to the Vatican City) In 1954, her grandfather Bruno took over, and his love and care for flowers ensured the Garden’s maintenance. Finally, in 2010, it was her mother Tiziana’s turn, the only female gardener working at the Vatican—the first for Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

“It is a great privilege, an honor,” says Tiziana. “Maybe I brought a feminine touch to this job, but to pull out weeds, I wear the same green overalls and gloves as my male colleagues. And they were happy to welcome me among them.”

Longtime Family Affair

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Vatican gardeners in a greenhouse in the 1970s. The man on the left is Tiziana’s father. (Photo courtesy of Tiziana Baiocco)

For Tiziana, the Vatican Gardens are like home, and whatever happens there is connected to what happens in her family, and vice versa. (Read: 5 Powerful Prayers for Your Children)

In 1996, her brother Roberto—who was already helping their father care for the Vatican tombs at the cemetery of Verano—left for a dream vacation but encountered tragedy while at sea. He was a strappy 27-year-old, and he did not hesitate to dive into the water to help people in danger. He managed to save them all, but in the end, he was overwhelmed by a wave and didn’t make it out alive. It was a tragic blow to the family, but they soldiered on, and Tiziana volunteered to take her brother’s place and help their father, who also had to stop due to an illness.

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Tiziana’s father, the gardener Bruno, with Pope John Paul II. (Photo courtesy of Tiziana Baiocco)

Life at the Gardens

The job of a gardener keeps Tiziana busy on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm. “I begin my day bringing a flower to those who don’t have one. Then I clean the chapel, the driveway, and the garden. Then I take care of the plants, I clean them and take charge of their daily care. It is a job that makes me proud because I can also offer my services this way to Pope Francis,” Tiziana says. (Read: Did you know that a special rose is named after Pope Francis?)

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The Papal Gardens are a natural treasure. For popes, they are a place where they can rest, ponder, and pray. (Photo from Wikipedia and Pixabay)

Plants and the Vatican are almost a destiny for the Baioccos. Tiziana has a very clear memory of Pope John Paul II, who confirmed her in 1989. “When he laid his hands on my head to give me the sacrament, I felt his strength,” Tiziana recalls. “He was a sweet man who walked the path to sainthood.”

As for Pope Francis, the bond is still new, but no less strong. Tiziana first met him in Casa Santa Marta, during the historic morning mass dedicated to staff and garbage collectors at the Vatican Gardens. (Read: Five Tips to Meeting Pope Francis) “Yes, we were the first ones to be invited and I was very thrilled. He waited for us outside the chapel, and the first thing I told him was to pray for my family, for my ill father. He asked the same of me, and since then I’ve been praying for him.”

A Fulfilling Job

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Taking over family duties, gardener Tiziana Baiocco shakes hands with Pope Francis. (Photo courtesy of Tiziana Baiocco)

What does it mean to work for popes? “It is extraordinary,” Tiziana expresses. “You feel like you’re witnessing their mission, you feel like you must tell others what characterizes them.” (Read: We asked three seniors: What is your mission at this stage in your life?)

Since she was a child, Tiziana has always believed that she needs to provide this kind of service, which her father served until shortly before his death. “I am truly sorry that he did not meet Pope Francis. The plan was to do so next September, to celebrate his golden anniversary with my mom… but such is life,” ends Tiziana. The lone female in the Vatican Gardens smiles, and goes back to work.

 


Text by Benedetta Capelli.

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