IRONDALE, ALA, 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. According to CNA/EWTN News, 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.