The Catholic Church in the United States has lost the Poor Clare nun who changed the face of Catholicism in the United States and around the world. Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, foundress of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), passed away on March 27 after a lengthy struggle with the aftereffects of a stroke. She was 92 years old.
“Mother has always and will always personify EWTN, the network that God asked her to found,” said EWTN Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Warsaw. “Her accomplishments and legacies in evangelization throughout the world are nothing short of miraculous and can only be attributed to divine Providence and her unwavering faithfulness to Our Lord.”
In 1981, Mother Angelica launched Eternal Word Television Network, which today transmits 24-hour-a-day programming to more than 264 million homes in 144 countries. What began with approximately 20 employees has now grown to nearly 400. The religious network broadcasts terrestrial and shortwave radio around the world, operates a religious goods catalog and publishes the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency, among other publishing ventures.
“Mother Angelica succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has served on EWTN’s board of governors since 1995. “She founded and grew a network that appealed to everyday Catholics, understood their needs and fed their spirits. She had a lot of help, obviously, but that was part of her genius.”
“In passing to eternal life, Mother Angelica leaves behind a legacy of holiness and commitment to the New Evangelization that should inspire us all,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. “I was honored to know and be able to assist Mother Angelica during the early days of EWTN. Over the years, that relationship grew, and today the Knights of Columbus and EWTN partner regularly on important projects.”
“Mother Angelica was fearless because she had God on her side,” Anderson added. “She saw what he needed her to do, and she did it! She transformed the world of Catholic broadcasting and brought the Gospel to far corners of our world. That witness of faith was unmistakable to anyone who met and worked with her, and generations of Catholics have and will continue to be formed by her vision and her ‘Yes’ to God’s will.”
Born Rita Rizzo on April 20, 1923, few would have predicted that the girl from a troubled family in Canton, Ohio, would go on to found not only two thriving religious orders, but also the world’s largest religious media network. Her life was one marked by many trials, but also by a profound “Yes” to whatever she felt God was asking of her.
“My parents divorced when I was 6 years old. That’s when hell began,” Mother Angelica said in a Register interview published in 2001. “My mother and I were desperate — moving from place to place, poor, hungry and barely surviving.”
The seeds of Mother’s vocation were in a healing she received when she was a teenager. She suffered from severe stomach pain when she and her mother went to visit Rhoda Wise, a Canton local to whom people had attributed miraculous healings. Wise gave Rita a novena to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. After nine days of prayer, Rita’s pain disappeared: She had been healed.
“That was the day I became aware of God’s love for me and began to thirst for him,” said Mother Angelica. “All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.” And give herself to Jesus, she did.
On Aug. 15, 1944, at the age of 21, Rita entered the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland and took the name by which the world would come to know her — Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.
A Promise to God
A life-changing incident then set in motion her abiding trust in Providence.
“In 1946, I was chosen as one of the founding sisters of a new monastery [Sancta Clara] in my hometown of Canton, Ohio,” Mother Angelica said in her 2001 interview with the Register. “One day in the 1950s, my work assignment was to scrub the floors in the monastery.”
“Unlike St. Thérèse, I used an electric scrubbing machine. In an instant, the machine went out of control. I lost my footing on the soapy floor and was thrown against the wall, back first.”
Two years later, the injury had worsened to the point Sister Mary Angelica could barely perform her duties. Hospitalized and awaiting surgery, she was told there was a 50/50 chance she’d never walk again.
“I was panic-stricken and made a bargain with God,” Mother recounted. “I promised if he would allow me to walk again that I would build him a monastery in the South. God kept his end, and through divine Providence, so did I.”
Soon after, she presented her desire to her superior. Confronted with two requests by two different nuns to start separate foundations, the abbess, Mother Veronica, who was Sister Mary Angelica’s novice mistress at the monastery in Cleveland, came up with a novel response.
Mother Veronica mailed two letters on the same day. One, on behalf of Sister Mary of the Cross, was mailed to the bishop of Saint Cloud, Minn.; the other, on behalf of Sister Mary Angelica, was mailed to Mobile-Birmingham, Ala., Archbishop Thomas Toolen. The first nun to receive a positive response from the bishop could proceed with her foundation; the other would abandon her idea. By Providence, Archbishop Toolen responded first, forever wedding Sister Angelica with Alabama.
On Feb. 3, 1961, after various medical problems and potential roadblocks, Rome granted Sister Mary Angelica permission for the Alabama foundation, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Ala. At the time, the Catholic population of the region was only 2 percent.
Mother Angelica was always a charismatic speaker. Her persuasive talks on the faith reached the ears of those in charge of radio and eventually television. In 1969, she began recording spiritual talks on audio for mass distribution. She recorded her first radio program in 1971, 10-minute programs for WBRC, according to her biography, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles by Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s The World Over.
Encouraged by her new friend and patron Nashville lawyer Bill Steltemeier, she recorded her first television programs seven years later — half-hour programs called Our Hermitage. It didn’t take long for her to warm to the idea of a faithful Catholic media apostolate.
While utilizing a secular studio to produce programs for a Christian cable television network one day in 1978, Mother Angelica heard that the station owned by the studio planned to air a program she felt was blasphemous.
“When I found out that the station was going to broadcast a blasphemous movie, I confronted the station manager and objected,” said Mother Angelica. “He ignored my complaint, so I told him I would go elsewhere to make my tapes. He told me, ‘You leave this station and you’re off television.’”
“I’ll build my own!” responded Mother Angelica.
“That decision was the catalyst for EWTN,” said Arroyo. “It led to the sisters’ suggestion to turn the garage into a television studio.”
Eternal Word Television Network was launched, fittingly, on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 1981. That garage became the first television studio and eventually became the control room — the nerve center — for EWTN’s global television programming.
Mother’s order, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, which began in Irondale with five nuns, moved and expanded in 1999 to a monastery at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala. The Poor Clares also expanded to new houses in Texas and Arizona.
In November 2015, the Hanceville community was augmented with the arrival of nuns from St. Joseph Adoration Monastery of Charlotte, N.C., which was merged with Our Lady of the Angels, under the leadership of Mother Dolores Marie.
Mother Dolores, who, before becoming a nun, worked for EWTN, described Mother Angelica’s spiritual legacy as a constant striving to respond daily to God’s will.
“When Mother first had her stroke [in 2001], a lot of people said what a shame because she was a voice of the Catholic faith and for the truth,” said Mother Dolores. “But faith tells us that all these 14 years were not wasted at all. Probably her most profound work has gone on in this time, in her silence and suffering. I believe that to be true. Our Lord gave her this time to be truly cloistered in her bed and have that time of deep prayer and intercession and suffering as an offering for the Church and for the world, for our order, for the network, for many things. And ultimately for souls. We won’t know until eternity the value of these past years.”
Mother Marie Andre, one of five nuns who started the Phoenix house and is now the abbess of the Poor Clares’ Our Lady of Solitude Monastery, also recognized Mother’s total commitment to God’s plan.
“She was never fearful of failure, but only fearful of not following God’s will” she added.“Mother described it as a train with several cars. The ‘Yes’ was the engine, with everything else attached to that. If she hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ neither the foundations nor the network would have been founded.”
The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, like EWTN, continues to draw thousands of visitors annually.
“The first thing you detected with Mother was her spousal love of Jesus. She was always telling people, ‘Jesus loves you,’” said Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, one of the original members of the men’s religious community founded by Mother Angelica, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. Currently, there are 15 friars in the community. The friars are largely involved in EWTN’s apostolate.
Father Joseph summed up Mother’s spiritual legacy as marked by her love of Jesus, centered on the Eucharist, a great trust in divine Providence and a strong family spirit.
Mother Angelica’s remarkable trust in divine Providence is evidenced by founding the network without counting the cost, as well as by how she prepared for her live television shows.
“She never prepared for live shows,” said Father Joseph, who used to work for the network as an engineer. “She would just pray with the crew and then go on television and trust that God would give her the words to say.”
On an EWTN television special for her 90th birthday, Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa talked about Mother’s authenticity. “To me,” highlighted Father Pacwa, “one of the most important things about Mother Angelica is that what you saw on TV is what you knew off of the stage as well. There was no difference.”
Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham offered yet another insight into Mother’s rare abilities over the phone on the TV special. “In a special way, I think George Weigel’s book Evangelical Catholicism summarizes what Mother Angelica was about,” Bishop Baker said. “She not only invented that term, many years ago, but put it into practice concretely — working so beautifully off the Scriptures and bringing the truth and the love and the life of the Gospel of Jesus to so many people, not only to our Catholic household of faith, but to many thousands of people who are not Catholic, in that beautiful way she had of touching lives, bringing so many people into the Catholic household of faith.”
Safeguarding the Church
Commentators say that aside from the foundation of the women’s and men’s religious orders, Mother Angelica also played a larger role. Some have asserted that she helped to safeguard the Church in the United States.
“Mother Angelica has been compared to a powerful medieval abbess. But the mass-media instrument she created has extended her influence for the Gospel far beyond that of any medieval abbess, and even beyond that of many of the last century’s most prominent American bishops,” said Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press. “Her long-term contribution is hard to assess, of course, but there is no doubt that Mother Angelica has helped root the Church in America more deeply in the Catholic Tradition; and at the same time, she has helped make the Church more innovative in how she communicates that tradition. All Catholics in America should thank God for Mother Angelica.”
“Mother Angelica has two important legacies,” said Arroyo. “To the wider world, she’s the first woman in the history of broadcast to found and lead a network for over 20 years. No one else has ever done that.”
“She was such a great support to Pope John Paul II and his successor,” added Arroyo. “Her active ministry ran parallel to Pope John Paul II’s, and she backed him up at a time when so many people were undermining Church authority, distorting the history and nature of the liturgy and popular devotion and confusing Catholic teaching. She showed that the commonsense approach of Catholics was right. She normalized the truth of the faith at a time when it was up for grabs.”
On Feb. 12, Pope Francis sent his greetings to Mother Angelica from aboard his papal plane to Cuba. “To Mother Angelica with my blessing, and I ask you to pray for me; I need it,” the Holy Father said. “God bless you, Mother Angelica.”
Retirement From Leadership
Mother Angelica retired from her leadership of EWTN in 2000. She suffered a stroke the following Christmas Eve. As a consequence, she spent the last years of her life mostly without the capacity for speech. Arroyo said that didn’t weaken her effectiveness.
“While she was unable to speak at length and sound off on the controversies and confusions of the day, what she did through prayer in her suffering was remarkable,” said Arroyo. “It’s certainly not our efforts that have kept EWTN on the air and allowed it to reach people in amazing ways. I attribute it all to the suffering of that one woman in Hanceville.”
Warsaw praised Mother Angelica as an inspiring model of Christian faith.
“The important thing, as Mother Angelica’s life and the lives so many of the saints have shown us, is to be faithful and to persevere,” he noted. “She once said, ‘You have been created by God and know Jesus for one reason: to witness to faith, hope and love before an unbelieving world.’”
“Mother Angelica’s life has been a life of faith; her prayer life and obedience to God are worthy of our imitation,” Warsaw continued. “Everything she did was an act of faith,” Archbishop Chaput agreed.
“She inspired other gifted people to join her in the work without compromising her own leadership and vision,” he said. “I admired her very much, not just as a talented leader and communicator, but as a friend and great woman religious of generosity, intellect and Catholic faith.”