On Easter Sunday — March 27, 2016 — Mother Mary Angelica, foundress of EWTN, breathed her last. She was in excruciating pain on Good Friday.
Her soul is now with the Lord. She is at peace after coping with a stroke in late 2001 and subsequent illnesses that kept her out of the limelight since then.
Traditional Catholics are grateful for her legacy, that of the EWTN television channel, which she founded in 1981.
Mother Mary Angelica’s early life will surprise many who think that nuns were ‘born that way’.
Born on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio, Rita Antoinette Rizzo was the only child of John and Mae Helen Rizzo (née Gianfrancesco). Industry in Canton at that time was booming. Consequently, the small city attracted many Italian immigrants.
Rizzo’s father worked as a tailor and left the family home when his daughter was very young. He and Mrs Rizzo divorced in 1929. Mother Mary Angelica later recalled that she and her mother lived:
like a pair of refugees. We were poor, hungry, and barely surviving on odd jobs before Mother learned the dry cleaning business as an apprentice to a Jewish tailor in our area. Even then, we pinched pennies just to keep food on the table.
At the age of 16, Rizzo helped her mother change jobs, which brought some financial relief.
Rizzo attended Canton McKinley High School, where she was one of the school’s first drum majorettes.
During her teenage years, she was stricken with an abdominal ailment which was not cured until shortly before her 20th birthday. Although she had been receiving extensive medical treatment, nothing worked. On the morning of January 18, 1943, she awoke to find she had no more pain. She attributed the cure to a healing ‘miracle’ performed by a Catholic faith healer. Deeply moved, she became a devout Catholic from that moment.
Called to the convent
In 1944, months after her cure, Rizzo went to a church to pray. As she prayed, she felt a calling to become a nun.
She spoke to a local Catholic priest who advised her to visit different convents to help her make a more informed decision about which order to join. She travelled some distance to Buffalo, New York, where she visited the Sisters of St Joseph. The sisters decided that Rizzo was better suited to the contemplative life.
On August 15, 1944, Rizzo, aged 21, entered the contemplative cloistered community of Saint Paul’s Shrine of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland, part of the Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration order. (Note in the photo below the small monstrance they wear.) She had felt at home on her visit there and accepted the sisters’ invitation to be a postulant.
Rizzo’s mother was most unhappy at this turn of events.
A year later, Rizzo was vested as a Poor Clare. The congregation gave her a new name, Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. A short time later, the Poor Clares opened a new monastery in Canton, and she was able to return to her home town.
In 1946, Sister Angelica had an accident with an industrial waxing machine. She fell, injuring her spine, which required her to wear leg braces for many years.
Feisty and innovative
She made her final vows as a Poor Clare on January 2, 1953. At that time, the civil rights movement was in its infancy; nonetheless, it captured Sister Angelica’s imagination. If she were cured of her chronic pain following the waxing machine accident, she silently vowed to open a new monastery. Her prayers were answered and she duly asked for her superior’s permission to establish a new monastery in Alabama in the hope that a community of religious could help to convert Protestant blacks to Roman Catholicism.
Permission granted, Sister Angelica began writing to various dioceses in the South to explain her project and request consent for building a new monastery. In 1957, the Archbishop of Mobile, the Most Revd Thomas Toolen, encouraged her to open a Franciscan one in Birmingham, Alabama. The Poor Clares are an order of Franciscan nuns.
The photo on the right, courtesy of Encyclopedia of Alabama, shows Sister Angelica, Archbishop Toolen and another Poor Clare discussing the project.
Amazingly, Sister Angelica and four other interested Poor Clares began making and selling fishing lures to pay for the monastery. The funding initiative, called St. Peter’s Fishing Lures, began in 1959. It was so successful that, by 1961, the nuns had made $13,000, which they used to purchase a two-bedroom house and 15 acres of land in the town of Irondale, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham and, later, the location of the book Fried Green Tomatoes.
From there, financial contributions from individual donors and companies began rolling in.
Archbishop Toolen formally dedicated Our Lady of the Angels Monastery on May 20, 1962.
In 1999, the monastery relocated several miles away to Hanceville, to a new site, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
In 1962, at Our Lady of the Angels, the now-Mother Angelica gave parlour talks on Catholicism to the general public. Those who attended remembered a gifted communicator and down-to-earth teacher.
Local Catholics thought her message deserved a wider audience. She began recording and selling 45-rpm records which contained lessons on Christian living. She also wrote booklets and later sold audio cassettes.
In the early 1970s, Bishop Joseph Vath of Birmingham urged Mother Angelica to begin lecturing outside the cloister. She started recording tapes of her teaching which were then broadcast on local radio. The Sunday morning broadcast was called Journey into Scripture.
Whilst it is unclear how many black Alabamians converted to Catholicism because of her efforts, with existing Catholics, Mother Angelica was a runaway success.
A local television station gave her a half-hour of airtime. By the end of the 1970s, Pat Robertson was airing her show on his satellite Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
Birth of EWTN
At the turn of the next decade, Mother Angelica visited a Chicago television studio and learned about its capabilities.
In 1981, she founded the non-profit Eternal Word Television Network, which initially broadcast out of a converted garage at the monastery.
Until 2002, Mother Angelica was Chairman and CEO of the corporation. She also had her own programme, Mother Angelica Live.
EWTN gradually grew to attract a global audience. It is unlikely that any adult Catholics today have not heard either of her or her network.
Raymond Arroyo, EWTN News’s Managing Editor and Mother Angelica’s biographer, said on Easter Sunday, following her death:
she was the only woman in television history to found and lead a cable network for 20 years.
The Vatican has long approved of EWTN and network executives say that they try to adhere to Vatican teachings.
However, that did not always mean Mother Angelica agreed with what was happening in the Catholic Church. She was not a fan of certain innovations during the 1980s and 1990s:
Mother Angelica’s outspokenness on church issues — her pet peeves were gender-neutral language in the liturgy and a change allowing girls to become altar servers — made her both friends and enemies among the Catholic faithful.
Battling the bishops
Mother Angelica’s traditionalist stances brought her into conflict with some American bishops.
In 1993, she strongly objected to a woman playing the role of Jesus in a Passion play during the World Youth Days that year. She deemed it ‘blasphemous’ and added:
I am so tired of you, liberal church in America. I resent you pushing your anti-Catholic, ungodly ways upon the masses of this country.
The controversial, ‘progressive’ Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee deemed her words ‘anti-Christian’ and ‘divisive’. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops took action, requesting that that particular segment of her programme not be rebroadcast. Mother Angelica flat out refused.
I’m afraid my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero. And I hope everybody else’s in that diocese is zero.
The cardinal accused her of disobedience and requested not only an apology but also a retraction.
Although Mother Angelica gave him a grudging apology, she overlaid that with a long televised explanation of her objections to his proposal.
The cardinal asked the Vatican to start looking into her teachings and EWTN programmes. They did. No disciplinary action was taken.
Meanwhile, EWTN’s audience further increased, as did donations from traditionalist Catholics. In 1994, The National Catholic Reporter estimated her annual donations were $25 million.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the Cross of Honor for distinguished service:
It is the highest award a pope can give to a member of the laity, the term by which the church defines everyone except ordained priests.
I would think that Mother Angelica will eventually be canonised.
What she went through from Good Friday to Easter indicates that she was a very holy and godly woman. That she died on Easter further reinforces her specialness to our Lord.
Women in the Church
It is so discouraging to know that many men, especially American conservative Christians, say that there is no place for women in positions of leadership in the Church.
Mother Angelica’s life and example proves them wrong.
I hope that young women, whether Catholic or Protestant, see her as a role model for leadership in and faithfulness to the Church.
Whether they agree with her theologically has no bearing on how her example can be used to teach and accomplish the impossible. Who would have thought that making and selling fishing lures would have led to a multi-million dollar non-profit Christian broadcasting empire?
The Church belongs to women, too. Ladies, use your God-given talents and faith to make a difference to your fellow Christians.