EWTN foundress Mother Angelica dies at 92

She was the most famous American nun of her day — or maybe any day. Mother Angelica, who died March 27, Easter Sunday, at the age of 92, built a broadcasting empire on moxie and faith. Visionary, controversial, indomitable, aggressively orthodox were adjectives used to describe the founder of the Eternal Word Television Network. All fit.

As measured by viewers’ comments, the network she leaves behind presents a similar picture.

Some attribute their conversion or their return to the Church to Mother Angelica and EWTN. Some voice an us-vs.-them view of Catholicism — “us” being conservatives like themselves who find affirmation in the network and “them” being fellow Catholics, including bishops and priests, with whom they disagree.

Launched in 1981 on a shoestring and a prayer, EWTN Global Catholic Network now is accessible to more than 264 million households in 144 countries and territories. With direct broadcast satellite TV and radio services, AM and FM radio networks, a worldwide shortwave radio station, an Internet website, and a publishing arm that included the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency, it is said to be the world’s largest religious media network.

“Mother,” as her associates called her, was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio, only child of John and Mae Rizzo. John Rizzo abandoned his wife and daughter, and the couple divorced in 1929. In the Depression years, Mae and Rita were, in the daughter’s words, “poor, hungry and barely surviving” until Mae found a job working for a Jewish tailor.

As a teenager, Rita suffered from severe abdominal pains that doctors could not cure. On the night of Jan. 17, 1943, the pain was the worst ever, but when she awoke, all pain had vanished.

After high school, she got a job, stopping daily at a church after work to make the Stations of the Cross and often attending Mass. While kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament one day in the summer of 1944 she felt a call from God to be a nun.

She joined the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland and received the religious name Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. Later she was transferred to a monastery in Canton where she made her first vows in 1947 and solemn vows in 1953.

It was while doing household chores in the monastery that she had an accident that left her with severe back pain and wearing a body cast. The night before surgery, she bargained with God: if he’d let her walk again, she’d build a monastery in the South. Four months later she could walk.

The Poor Clares had been considering a southern foundation for some time. Irondale, Alabama, outside Birmingham, was selected as the site, and Mother Angelica went there with four other nuns. Our Lady of the Angels Monastery was officially established on May 20, 1962. Its first postulant was Mae Rizzo, who became Sister Mary David.

To support themselves, the nuns made fishing lures and sold peanuts. Mother Angelica also wrote booklets and recorded religious tapes. Soon she moved to television, appearing on a local station and on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Jim Bakker’s PTL Club.

In the late 1970s she began dreaming of her own cable channel. EWTN started on Aug. 15, 1981, operating from a garage behind the monastery and broadcasting daily from 7 p.m. to midnight. It expanded to 12 hours in 1985 and 24 hours in 1987.

Early programming included weekly (now daily) Mass, old Bishop Sheen programs, family-oriented movies and TV shows, 1950s Westerns, and the twice-weekly “Mother Angelica Live.” By 1986 the schedule was all-religious. The programming now features religious talk shows and occasional special events. The emphasis is deeply orthodox and conservative.

In time EWTN attracted a core of devoted viewers, with the founder herself acquiring a reputation as a pious, witty and outspoken TV personality. In one famous incident, she criticized Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles for a pastoral letter on the Eucharist that she found wanting. An offshoot of this clash was an EWTN theology department charged with ensuring strict orthodoxy.

In 1987 Mother Angelica founded a religious community of men, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, dedicated to teaching the Faith. In 1999, a new monastery for the nuns was opened in Hanceville, Alabama, also the location of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Mother transferred control of EWTN to a lay board in 2000. Her live on-air appearances came to an end the following year after she suffered strokes, the aftereffects of which eventually led to her death. 

In October 2009, she and Deacon William Steltemeier, a former Nashville attorney who was EWTN president for years and later chairman of the board, and who died in 2013, received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal. The papal honor was conferred by Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham. EWTN president Michael P. Warsaw cited the recipients’ “tremendous faith, hard work, and incredible sacrifices.”

Shortly after Mother Angelica’s death, Bishop Baker released a statement saying the nun “brought 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 Faith.”

In his own statement, Michael P. Warsaw, EWTN chairman and chief executive officer, said that Mother Angelica “has always, and will always, personify EWTN, the Network which she founded. In the face of sickness and long-suffering trials, Mother’s example of joy and prayerful perseverance exemplified the Franciscan spirit she held so dear. We thank God for Mother Angelica and for the gift of her extraordinary life. ... Mother Angelica’s life has been a life of faith; her prayer life and obedience to God are worthy of our imitation. Everything she did was an act of faith.”

“Mother Angelica succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a member of EWTN’s Board of Directors since 1995. “She founded and grew a network that appealed to everyday Catholics, understood their needs and fed their spirits. Mother Angelica inspired other gifted people to join her in the work without compromising her own leadership and vision.” 

Comments posted on an Internet biography of Mother Angelica present a complex picture of her place in American Catholicism and EWTN’s influence.

Some stress alienation from the mainstream Church (“I contribute practically nothing to the churches where I attend Mass almost every day and send as much as I can to EWTN”). Others express heartfelt thanks for Mother Angelica’s role in their lives (“Mother Angelica and EWTN had a profound influence on my conversion”).

So, someone might ask, is her legacy the resentments of the aggressively orthodox or the thankfulness of the neo-orthodox? Historians are likely to have their hands full settling that.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.