Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, known throughout the world simply as Mother Angelica, founder of the largest religious media empire in the world, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), died earlier this year aged 92 at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama.
Her Requiem Mass was celebrated at an overflow Mass at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, by the Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Vigano; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, vice chairman of the EWTN board and its longest-serving current member; Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama; and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona. Pope Francis sent his condolences.
Mother Angelica was a member of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, a Franciscan order of nuns created to serve God in simplicity and joy of heart.
The nuns’ lives are totally consecrated to Adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, solemnly exposed in the Monstrance in the Monastery Chapel.
After her parents divorced when she was six, Rita Rizzo grew up with her extremely poor mother as a nominal Catholic in Ohio. At about the age of 17, she began to suffer severe stomach problems that doctors were unable to resolve.
In 1943, at the age of 21, the desperate young woman visited a local Catholic mystic, Rhoda Wise, in search of a cure for the painful stomach ailment that made it difficult for her to eat food. The mystic advised the young woman to make a novena for a healing.
Exactly nine days later the pain dissolved and Rita could suddenly eat anything she desired. She earnestly believed the healing to be miraculous.
“When the Lord came in and healed me … I had a whole different attitude,” Mother Angelica told her biographer, Raymond Arroyo. “I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.”
Feeling drawn to religious life, but fearing to upset her highly strung mother, she began visiting religious communities surreptitiously.
Eventually, she entered a cloistered Poor Clare community in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944. Fearful of a showdown with her emotionally fragile mother, Rita quietly boarded a bus bound for Cleveland, informing her mother to her whereabouts by letter.
She was a member of the Poor Clares for over 70 years.
Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Angelica experienced a “call within the call”.
In the early 1960s, the Archbishop of Birmingham, Alabama, issued an appeal for religious living in the north of the United States to go to the south of the country, where there were few Catholics and racial divisions were everywhere.
Five nuns from Ohio decided to set up a new religious house in Irondale, a suburb of Birmingham, under Mother Angelica. Our Lady of the Angels Monastery was dedicated by the Archbishop in May 1962.
Despite great financial difficulties, the monastery survived and gradually began to attract people seeking a place of contemplation and spiritual healing.
Ten years later, Mother Angelica’s charisma and gift of teaching unfolded even more when she began to write her “Mini Books”. The first of many books was Journey into Prayer. The sisters printed, packaged and shipped these works by the thousands.
After many leaps of faith, Mother Angelica launched Eternal Word Television Network in August 1981, reaching out to Americans through the then new and growing cable TV network.
It was hardly foreseeable that this missionary endeavour, which had begun in the sisters’ garage with only $US200, would become the great media apostolate that it is today, embracing satellite TV and the internet, as well as cable.
The Wall Street Journal published an obituary, recognising the unique importance of Mother Angelica, and her vision.
It said: “Mother Mary Angelica, a Roman Catholic nun, used entrepreneurial flair and saucy humour to create a religious television, radio and publishing empire with global reach.”
“Sweet but steely”
Another described her as “the sweet but steely Poor Clare Catholic nun” who was unafraid of publicly criticising bishops who failed to stand up for Catholic teaching, earning their undying enmity.
When Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles issued a pastoral letter she thought watered down the Real Presence, she critiqued him, point by point, on television – and refused to offer a false apology, even when Cardinal Mahony’s machinations got her threatened with interdict (the loss of the Sacraments) and the closure of her community.
When still other bishops tried to gain control of EWTN and stifle her loudly orthodox voice, she famously said: “I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it.”
It would have pleased – and probably surprised – Mother Angelica that at exactly the same time her funeral was held in Alabama, a memorial Mass was held in Rome, led by Cardinal George Pell.
In his homily, Cardinal Pell compared Mother Angelica’s life and work at EWTN with the day’s Gospel from John, saying that “the spread and effectiveness” of EWTN, founded with an investment of just $200, “was as unexpected as the Apostles’ huge catch of fish”.
He also spoke admiringly of Mother Angelica’s “boisterous” TV personality in spite of being a contemplative Franciscan nun, provoking laughter when he said that her religious name, Mary Angelica, was perhaps a bit “incongruous” since “she was not angelic in any conventional sense”.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow also voiced his sorrow at Mother Angelica’s passing.
The Cardinal was the long-time secretary to St John Paul II both before and during his 27-year pontificate, and as such had met Mother Angelica when she visited the Polish Pope in Rome.
Mother Angelica, he said, “was a wonderful woman dedicated to Jesus and to the Church. She devoted her life to ministry, converting untold numbers of people to the Church.”
The Poor Clare left “an indelible mark on the Catholic Church and the world as a whole,” he said.
Cardinal Dziwisz praised her as someone who would always be remembered for her “personal sermons” and said she “will live on forever in the hearts of all those that her sermons have touched through her gift to the world, the Eternal Word Television Network”.
In a letter from Pope Francis that was read aloud at Mother Angelica’s funeral, the Pope said that he was “saddened” to learn of her death, and extended his “heartfelt condolences to the Poor Clares of the Perpetual Adoration of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, and to the EWTN community”.
Pope Francis expressed his gratitude “for Mother Angelica’s service to the Gospel through social communications and through a life of prayer”, and commended her soul “to the merciful love of Almighty God”.
It seems that everyone has a favourite story about Mother Angelica.
One blogger wrote: “My favourite Mother story was about the huge Monstrance she acquired for the new church she built in Irondale, Alabama. Someone asked her why she got one so big; she answered: ‘Because I couldn’t find a bigger one.’ Ya gotta love that!”
Another wrote: “My mom first saw Mother Angelica on TV in 1989 as she was flipping through the channels to find her soap operas. My mother would tell you that she felt compelled to watch because she hadn’t seen a nun in a habit in so long, and it rekindled in her the spark that helped our entire family become more faithfully practising Catholics.
“I can honestly say that I don’t know who or where I would be today if it wasn’t for Mother Angelica, EWTN, and the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration who prayed for me at my mother’s behest through many challenging years.”
Another wrote: “I was going through a difficult time physically (I became disabled with a chronic medical problem), emotionally, and spiritually – I had lost my way and was floundering.
“Mostly in bed for many months, I began channel surfing and found EWTN. Mother Angelica began leading me back to the Church. EWTN is one of the main reasons I returned to the Church, and my faith has never been stronger.
“I went to Confession in 2009 for the first time in decades. I sponsored my son-in-law when he converted and my daughter finally made her confirmation – they were married in the Church after being married civilly for 10 years.
“My husband also returned after decades and my grandson made his Communion at the age of 10. I am so grateful to Mother and EWTN, and she has provided much inspiration via her books also. RIP, Mother.”
Mother Angelica herself told how God had directly intervened in her life.
Some time after establishing ETWN, Mother ordered a giant satellite dish in order greatly to increase the reach of her network. When the device arrived, the driver of the truck demanded the money on the spot.
Mother asked to be excused for a few minutes and went to her chapel to pray: “Lord, I thought you wanted this satellite thing; now give me the money I need!”
As she went out to speak to the driver, one of her sisters ran up, announcing: “There is a man on the phone who says he wants to give you a donation.” It was a gentlemen calling from a yacht in the Bahamas who said he suddenly had the inspiration to send Mother Angelica $600,000!
One of those whom Mother Angelica touched was Paul Darrow, who was an active homosexual living in San Francisco. He first saw Mother Angelica on TV, not long after she suffered a stroke in 1991, paralysing the left side of her face, and forcing her to wear an eye-patch over her left eye.
He recalled laughing mockingly at this nun with a patch over her eye, a distorted face, and a completely old-fashioned habit.
Then she “said something so intelligent, so real, and so honest, that it really struck me”, he said.
“You see God created you and me to be happy in this life and the next,” Mother Angelica said through slumped lips, her good eye still twinkling behind her glasses.
“He cares for you. He watches your every move. There’s no one that loves you can do that.”
Mother Angelica’s words struck a chord with Darrow that day, and he found himself secretively snatching glimpses of her episodes every chance he got.
Eventually, Mother Angelica’s influence convinced Darrow to go back to church after decades of absence. It was a move that made Darrow very wary; he was sure he would lose friends and clients if they saw him going into a Catholic Church.
“People were in shock that an educated, relatively intelligent man could believe in Jesus Christ. These were the few friends that were aware that I was back in the Church,” he said.
But it’s a move that he has never regretted. Since his conversion, Darrow has shared his experience through talks and conferences. Mother Angelica also led Darrow to discover Courage International, the Vatican-approved apostolate that reaches out to Catholics with same-sex attraction with the goals of growing closer to God, engaging in supportive friendships, and learning to live full lives within the call to chastity.
It was through Courage International that Darrow became involved with the film, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which he saw as a chance to share his story and to give others the same hope that he had found in the Catholic Church.
“I was not discriminated against at the beginning of my journey back to the Catholic Church, I was never told that I was a bad person, that I was doing something wrong, even in confession,” he said.
“The Catholic Church really is, according to its teachings, open to everybody.”
Darrow said he felt he owed it to God to share his story through Courage and through the film because of all that God had done in his life.
“I wanted to express my love to God and my appreciation for all that He had done for me,” Darrow said, “that He had never forgotten me during the decades that I had forgotten him or turned against him.”
The full documentary is available for free online.